In Maggie Shipstead’s first two novels, “Seating Arrangements” and “Astonish Me,” she kept the lens narrow and filled her cloistered world with characters who often scanned as unlikable or unsympathetic. Yet Shipstead’s narrative skill compelled readers along, as when she derided one of the numerous snooty WASPs populating her debut as someone who “had been a dour Young Republican in his teens and in his twenties applied himself to his finance job and to a methodical investigation of eligible women that ultimately yielded a female mirror image who fused with him in a marriage as cold and perfect as the bond between two adjacent blocks in an igloo.”
With “Great Circle,” it’s time to rewrite the book on Maggie Shipstead. Her writing still soars and dips with dizzying flair, but this time the dazzling prose is in the service of an expansive story that covers more than a century and seems to encapsulate the whole wide world. With detailed brilliance, she lavishes heart and empathy on every character (save one villain), no matter how small their role.
The book jumps between two stories. Both parts of this circle muse about the reflections and refractions of reality through art, and how close it can ever get to the truth. But ultimately each story is about a woman trying to navigate her way in a man’s world. They must, as Shipstead writes about flying, break free of their instincts and learn new ones; each discovers ways to tip the unequal power dynamics a little more favorably in her direction. Both pursue ambition while also seeking someplace to disappear and find personal contentment.
Marian Graves is most at peace in the air, which she initially thinks of “as an ally rather than an indifferent immensity full of ungovernable forces.” As infants in 1914, Marian and her twin brother Jamie are saved from a tragic death on the ocean, but at great cost to their family. The children are raised — or left to raise themselves — by their uncle Wallace in Montana, where they and their friend Caleb explore every inch of the wild together... until Marian discovers the wonders of flight. We see them at every stage of their lives; Shipstead writes about all three with such compassion, and about the twins in particular with such subtlety, that we come to care for them deeply.
While Caleb, as a wilderness guide, and Jamie, as an artist, remain tethered to the earth, the precocious and talented Marian pursues her dream of flying. She had “no fear in her, only a daring indistinguishable from necessity.” She attains greatness in the sky but the costs, thanks to the seductive and dangerous Barclay MacQueen, are immense — Marian knows this, feeling in her first long encounter with the man, “not ordinary anxiety but an inarticulate dread, some primal resistance to the thing that roiled between them.”
The circle is completed by Hadley Baxter, a modern-day movie star — deeply unhappy and trapped in a relationship and a shallow movie franchise that stifle her — destined to play Marian Graves on screen. Baxter, whose parents disappeared in a private plane over water, was also barely raised by an uncle and discovered Graves’s epic saga as a child. She is most at home when she can disappear into a character, and playing Marian offers her first chance to truly explore unknown depths.
The sexism of her chosen field and her emotional turmoil and eternal questing parallel Marian’s, but Hadley’s life is somewhat of a pale echo; she is an actor living through others’ stories and her tale is ultimately a conduit for illuminating Marian, and for expounding on the themes of Marian’s journey.
Still, even here, Shipstead’s prose is savory, as when Hadley is (mistakenly) reluctant to be introduced to a woman who once met Marian. Flashing the bite we saw in her first book, Shipstead writes, “There should be an Antiques Roadshow for memories, and I would sit behind a desk and explain that while your memory might be lovely and have tremendous sentimental value, it was worth nothing to anyone but you.”
Even as Shipstead constructs her great circle she doesn’t hesitate to veer off course. There are close to 20 characters who are either fully fleshed out or at least sketched in with enough vibrancy that if you met one of them at a dinner party you’d feel like you’ve known them socially for years. Shipstead also takes care to give life, even briefly, to historical women, like Sitting in the Water Grizzly, a Native woman, who, around the turn of the 19th century, found power in assuming a trans role, and Elinor Smith, a pioneering pilot. You’ll gladly follow the story as it turns and banks, trusting Shipstead to steer you back on course, weaving all the characters and ideas together as Marian, Jamie, and Caleb travel through the Depression, World War II, and beyond.
Even when the book loses some altitude during the war years, it always rights itself, its narrative momentum propelling you forward. Many authors attempting to create an epic falter at the end, losing control of the characters or the story, but Shipstead never wavers, pulls out a twist or two that feel fully earned, and then sticks the landing. After more than a year of a pandemic that grounded us all, “Great Circle” could not have arrived at a better time.
Stuart Miller has written about books for the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and other publications.
By Maggie Shipstead
Knopf, 608 pages, $28.95