The best-selling novelist tackles an entirely new genre in her hefty tome.

By Leah Greenblatt
April 28, 2021 at 10:00 AM EDT
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maggie shipstead
Credit: courtesy maggie shipstead

What if the most interesting man in the world was a woman? Marian Graves, the swashbuckling heroine of Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead's sprawling new doorstop of a novel, is "an odd, tall, dusty, freckled girl" for whom gender fluidity is a gift, used largely in service of living the untethered life she dreams of — one that will take her from certain death in the frigid mid-Atlantic circa 1914 to Prohibition-era Montana, battle-torn World War II Europe, the ice floes of Antarctica, and beyond.

Pulled from the wreckage of a capsized ocean liner some two years after the Titanic and effectively orphaned, Marian and her twin brother are still infants when they're passed off to a bachelor uncle in Missoula and left to grow there like untended weeds, semi-feral and largely self-educated. The more subdued Jamie cultivates a quiet passion for painting, while his restless sibling devours fat tomes on Shakespeare and faraway lands, and, by her early teens, discovers the medium that will set her free: flight. Hair cropped and bony knees covertly trousered, she becomes a local bootlegger's errand "boy" to help earn her aviation wings; the job brings enough money for flying lessons, and soon an eager benefactor, too — the first of many men (and at least one woman) who will strive, vainly, to contain her.

Shipstead (Astonish Me) has more than enough raw material in her muse to sustain the nearly 600 pages that follow. Yet into all that she also weaves the wry modern-day musings of an actress named Hadley Baxter, the disgraced star of a YA fantasy franchise whose best shot at Hollywood redemption may be a Marian biopic. Hadley's tart contributions fade in the book's back half, and the story takes occasional swerves into soapiness and coincidence as it moves between timelines and datelines. But in a moment when our quarantined worlds have become so small — whole months measured not in continents or nautical miles but square inches of living room carpet — Great Circle offers more than just wanderlust; it feels like a liberation by proxy, too. Grade: B+

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