Gripped by a Great (Big) Book

The older I’ve grown, the more difficult I’ve found it to deal with long books. In my early twenties, I can remember reading T. H. White’s The Once and Future King from cover to cover (that’s 677 pages in my faded hardcover edition), and A. S. Byatt’s wonderful Possession was a bagatelle at 555 pages when I was in my thirties. Today, though, I find myself slightly affronted by an author who expects a reader to plough through more than 450 pages. I suspect I’m not the only one with this aversion to tomes—perhaps that’s why today’s publishers offer us trilogies instead of doorstopper-sized novels.

My solution to this weakening of moral fiber has been audiobooks. It seems counterintuitive that I’m willing to listen to twenty-plus hours of being read to but can’t summon the gumption to read the 500 pages of a story myself, which would actually take less time. I suppose since I listen to audiobooks while I’m cooking, cleaning, ironing, exercising, driving, shopping, and, above all, walking, this kind of “reading” plays a different role in my life.

All this is to say that I didn’t actually read the superb, 608-page novel that I’m recommending to you now but instead spent twenty-five entranced hours listening to it. The book is a treasure but certainly not a hidden one: Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle was published ten months ago, on May 4, 2021, and it’s a highly praised bestseller that was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.  But it’s new to me, because I just finished it, and I feel that I have to share my delight in it with as many people as possible.

Novelist Maggie Shipstead. (Photo by K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The novel tells the story of Marian Graves, born in 1914 and rescued as an infant with her twin brother Jamie from a sinking ship.  She and Jamie are raised by their affectionate but negligent uncle, a painter, gambler, and alcoholic, in Missoula, Montana, where twelve-year-old Marian first sees an airplane fly over her. From then on, she is determined to be a pilot, and she sets about becoming an excellent one—through Prohibition and the Great Depression and into the early days of World War II in Montana, Canada, and Alaska. Then, in 1942, she joins  a group of American women pilots volunteering to work for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), whose people ferried freight and passengers but above all airplanes all over Britain, freeing up combat pilots to fight.

In 1949, Marian and a navigator friend decide to complete a great circle around the world, passing over both poles. From New Zealand to Hawaii to Alaska they fly, then over the North Pole and on to southern Sweden. By February 1950 they are in South Africa and then over Antarctica.  But just before they complete their journey, somewhere between the South Pole and New Zealand, their plane goes down in the ocean, and they are lost. With that, Marian Graves becomes a minor figure in the history of aviation, even after her flight journal is found many years after her disappearance.

But she is not unknown to the book’s contemporary character Hadley Baxter, a young movie star (yes, a real star, the kind who is followed by paparazzi and tormented on social media sites) who has just been fired from a beloved fantasy series for behaving badly. She is hired to play Marian Graves in a movie, and her involvement with the film becomes a step toward maturity for her. By creating a foil for Marian in the form of Hadley, Shipstead has the chance to show us the gleaming artificiality of Hollywood, which contrasts powerfully with the vast, isolated beauty of Alaska, where Marian becomes a truly professional pilot, and the desperate merrymaking of an airbase in England during the Second World War.

Fiction is good when it tells an exciting story about a character you’re strongly drawn to. It’s great when it’s also full of striking similes and elegant word choices, introduces secondary characters whom you come to care about almost as much as the main ones, and conveys fascinating background information so smoothly that you don’t even notice how much you’re learning. Great Circle does all of this—and more. When you finish the novel, you have a feeling of well-being and a deep sense of satisfaction, as if a great circle really had been completed and you’d been part of the achievement.

I hope you’ll read (or listen to) this book and enjoy it as much as I did.  If its length is daunting, take a month-long reading break every two hundred pages, and you can pretend it’s a trilogy.

The photograph of Alaska heading this post is by Ian Reid from his 2018 book The Kenai River: An Aerial Perspective.

7 thoughts on “Gripped by a Great (Big) Book

  1. I feel the same about big books, but unfortunately I haven’t got the stamina for audio either. I read The Mirror and the Light recently, and that did hold my attention. Loved The Once and Future King, and also the Titus Groan trilogy.

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    1. Nice to hear from another fan of the Arthurian legends! I listened to and loved Wolf Hall but as you see I have a way to go before I get to the Mirror and the Light. Thanks for the encouragement; I will read it! But my upcoming book is 358 pages; that’s what I think is a good maximum length!

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  2. Thanks, Kim, it is on my reading list. Good summary—I understand the problem with big books…and I prefer paperbacks for the ease of reading them in bed—but I have not yet mastered audiobooks and tablets, which I keep telling myself to do. I had books on tape and loved them, but I haven’t yet made the switch to audiobooks from the library. Is the reader a good one? I loved the reader of the Dorothy Dunnett series–I listened to the Lymond series—an entire theatre cast in one person—and the same for the reader of the Mary Russell books by Laurie R, King. But I can’t listen to a book while driving, it is unsafe—I don’t “see” the road as much as the book. Good morning, and have a good day.

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    1. Hi Julia! I also like the reader of the Mary Russell books–I’ve listened to most of those, although they aren’t too long. And I think the woman who reads “Great Circle” does a very good job. You’re right, though–not all audiobooks work, because some readers are truly poor. As an author myself, I sympathize with writers if their book gets presented by a bad reader. My rights belong to my publisher, so I won’t even get to pick whoever does my audiobook, and I imagine it’s the same for lots of writers. In any case, let me know what you think of “Great Circle” if you get to it.

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