By Lisa Leenstra
Someone once told me that books should never be more than 500 pages. No book, they insist, needs nor deserves more than that to tell a great story. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead—shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2021—seemed a strong contender for the prize, but its 600 pages fail to disprove this statement.
Like last year’s Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart, Shipstead had to make drastic cuts in her earlier drafts. In the acknowledgments, Shipstead writes: “Paring down an unwieldy thousand-page manuscript into this slender wisp of a thing was not an easy process.” Stuart, having written his winning novel Shuggie Bain over the course of 10 years, echoed this sentiment. However, unlike Shipstead, Stuart managed to get his work down to around 450 pages. Those eliminated 150 pages made a world of difference—possibly even the difference between winning and losing.
In Great Circle, Shipstead truly embarks on an adventure; the story has a large cast, spans over a century, and leaves little of the world uncovered. The opening of the book illustrates the backstory of Marian and Jamie Graves, twins who as babies survive a shipwreck. During this tragedy, their mom leaves and their dad saves them, which sentences him to jailtime for failing his duties as captain and them to a life with their uncle. Here, the twins are mostly left to themselves as their uncle is too busy with painting, drinking and gambling. This freedom makes that one day, Marian finds herself on top of a mountain when an airplane flies dangerously close overhead, igniting a lifelong dream of becoming a pilot. We follow Marian as she does anything to achieve this dream; she marries the toxic man who pays for it, leaves for England to fight in World War II, and sets out to fly a great circle around the world but vanishes on the last leg.
Years later, Marian’s legacy is to be brought to the big screen and world-famous actress Hadley Baxter is cast to portray her. Hadley lands this role after a big scandal costs her her role in a previous franchise, which her life revolved around. And so alongside Marian’s story, Great Circle follows Hadley as she readies herself for her potentially career-saving role and deals with the aftermath of her affair(s).
Switching between narrators can be a weakness, because if done wrong it causes confusion in the story or invites a comparison between the characters, thereby heightening the chances of disliking a character. But it is actually one of Great Circle’s strong points. While mainly following Marian and Hadley’s stories, Shipstead often makes small narrative detours, delving into other plot-interwoven stories. None of these shifts feel abrupt and thanks to clear headings and masterful writing style, it is unmistakable who the section revolves around, even if the shifts happen across time.
It is evident that Shipstead has taken the time to research the book’s content and context. For example, big events in the history of aviation are tied in with events in Marian’s life. Aside from that, the experiences of Marian are familiar in their detail and realism, resembling Amelia Earhart’s pioneering aviation career, which culminated in her mysterious midflight disappearance in 1937. This detail and realism is a strong aspect of Shipstead’s gripping writing; from the first page onwards, it lures the reader into the story and makes it easy to connect with the characters.
Unfortunately, because of Great Circle’s unwieldy length, this wonderfully obtained attachment to the characters slowly shifts into detachment as the book drags on. The reader receives so much information about each character that the various deaths throughout are no longer heart-wrenching, but almost relieving. This includes Marian, whom we know from early on will not live through her last flight, and as that moment draws near, the reader will experience a great duality between feeling like “it cannot end like that. Not after all this,” and “Please, just get it over with.”
Also, as easy as it is to follow whom the chapter concerns, making sense of all the (hinted at) connections between characters over time becomes increasingly difficult. Throughout the 600 pages, there are a lot of characters who are shortly (re)introduced to catalyze something further down in the timeline. For instance, almost all the people involved in the production of Hadley’s movie have ties to someone in Marian’s life, so much so that for some readers the hints to these relationships might be lost. The connection between Adelaide Scott and Sarah Fahey is one of these occurrences. Hadley is introduced to Adelaide on a get-together with the movie’s team. Sarah is the first and true love of Marian’s twin Jamie. Because of how much has happened—and is happening—and the gaps between appearances of these characters, it is easy to miss the connection to Adelaide when Sarah Fahey is reintroduced as Sarah Scott after getting married. Nevertheless, the connection is there, for Adelaide is later revealed to be her daughter. While this does not depreciate the novel entirely, it is lamentable because of how easily it could have been avoided and because it takes away from the realism that originates from the well-researched details. There can be some points of overlap between an original story and an adaptation, and personal connections can be the instigation for this. However, it seems improbable that all characters are connected in some way, if not by blood, then by coincidence.
Great Circle is a truly enjoyable novel and I would not hesitate to recommend it to people who do not shy away from big books. However, it also has its shortcomings, ironically due to its length. Maybe if, like Stuart, Shipstead had found a way to trim the story down even further, she could have produced a winner, but as we know by now, Great Circle has failed to land the 2021 Booker Prize.
Lisa Leenstra is a graduate student in English literature, currently enrolled in the Literature Today program at Utrecht University. Her motto is “I like books, not necessarily literature,” which illustrates her preference for modern books over classics.
- Shipstead, Maggie. Great Circle. Doubleday, 2021.