Updated: Nov 9, 2021
The novel predominantly tells the story of two women who live generations apart. Marian Graves, a daring aviatrix who disappears while trying to fly around the world passing both poles, and Hadley Baxter, an actress who has been trapped and typecast as a character from a famous film franchise, who is now trying to escape by playing Graves in a film being made about her flight and disappearance.
The novel mainly takes place in an era when it was all the rage for pilots trying to outdo each other. Fly further, fly faster, fly non-stop, and names such as Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindberg are still almost household names to this day.
From the day that Marian was nearly hit by a barnstorming biplane, she always wanted to fly. She was fascinated by planes, and she was born into exactly the right era. With World War 2 planes advanced at a frantic pace. Unfortunately, Marian was also born into an era where being a woman made her dreams of becoming a pilot and flying a difficulty. However, she prevails, flying illegal bootlegging trips, transports many different planes to different areas during the war, and then her ill-fated trip from which she is never found.
In the present Hadley Baxter is trying to get her acting career back on track after being fired from the famous Archangel films. Hadley’s enormous fame comes from these films, and yet like many young actors before her, the films also trap her. This film about Graves, is her chance to break free from her defining Archangel character once and for all.
As the film is being shot Hadley becomes increasingly interested in Marian Baxter’s life and this is the most interesting part of the novel for me. Hadley finds that there are secrets that have never been found about Graves.
There are similarities between both women, both being brought up by Uncles, both having lost their parents to accidents and, in Marian’s case, prison. Both Uncles poor replacements. There is also a considerable amount of the narrative devoted to Marian’s twin brother Jamie. Not just an ancillary character, his story integral as well.
In fact, the novel is full of great characters, Caleb and Barclay Macqueen, both memorable and important.
The novel has all the ingredients to be a thrilling read, wonderfully rich characters, and an enjoyable story, especially for aviation lovers. Baxter even gets to fly England’s beloved Spitfire and its famous Merlin engine. However, for me it is just a tad too long. There are parts of the narrative that could have been cut even though Shipstead says it was cut from 1000 pages to 600.
A terrific read, which with a little more editing would have been 5 stars for me.
Maggie Shipstead is the New York Times-bestselling author of the novels Astonish Me and Seating Arrangements, winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize and the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction. A third novel, Great Circle, will be published in May 2021. She is a graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Her writing has appeared in many places, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Departures, Condé Nast Traveler, Outside, The Best American Short Stories, and The Best American Sports Writing. In 2012 and 2018, she was a National Magazine Award finalist for fiction. She lives in Los Angeles.