By Maggie Shipstead
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From the days of giant passenger ships sliding past Arctic icebergs, to the daring pilots of WWII, to present-day Hollywood and its malcontents, at the core of this story is the indomitable Marian Graves and her twin brother Jamie who are twice abandoned by their parents. Marian and Jamie grow up roaming Montana forests, more comfortable with landscape than with people.
When a pair of aerobats take their exhilarating show to a nearby airfield, Marian’s life is changed forever. Watching them roll, dive, and loop in their mini plane, she can think of nothing else but flying. As she grows into a woman, she sacrifices everything to command the breathtaking sense of freedom, of utter control over her own fate, that she feels when in the air. She becomes one of the most fearless pilots of her time, and in 1949 she sets out to do what no one has done before: fly the Great Circle around the earth, north to south around the poles. Shortly before completing the journey, her plane disappears, lost to history.
In 2015, Hadley Baxter, former child star and poster girl of the blockbuster Archangel franchise, has just been fired for cheating on her on-screen boyfriend. Struggling to escape the fury of the fans, she grasps at an offer for the comeback role of a lifetime: to play the famed female pilot Marian Graves in a biopic. From the first pages of the script, she feels an instant connection with Marian, a woman who refused to be bound by gravity or any of the other strictures of her time. After filming is complete, her bond grows stronger as she begins to question whether the Great Marian Graves really did die at all.
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Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I found it engaging, interesting and extremely well-researched and well-written. The prose is fabulous in places. Some of my favourite passages:
p.204: She thinks he might destroy her, break her like some small animal and not even notice because what he wants is not actually in her but beyond her, somewhere else, or perhaps doesn’t exist.
p.205 Could there be power in submission?
p.394 He likes Jackie and her strict lipstick and resolutely powdered nose, the whiff of sawdust under her expensive perfume.
p.437 The barracks’ interiors were collaged with women, barrel-vaulted Quonset huts densely papered with smiling movie stars and nameless models the way some cathedral ceilings were crowded with angels and apostles. The women from home, the real women, were kept in pockets or pinned above bunks and washstands like patron saints.
p.497 Age had ceased to matter. The young lived nearer death than the old.
This is a great book for book groups as there is so much in there to discuss.
1. Hadley considered herself to be like Marian having had similar experiences in early life. But would Marian have thought Hadley was like her? Personally, I doubt it. There were significant differences between Marian and Hadley. In many ways I felt that Hadley denigrated Marian, that she didn’t fully uphold her spirit, and it made me dislike her as a character.
2. Is Hadley’s story necessary to the book? I noticed the editors had pared the book down from 1000 pages, so there must have been positive and considered decisions made about retaining this part of the book. In my view, I am not convinced that this part of the story adds much, other than to add a device that provides additional information, particularly subsequent to the flight.
3. I felt as though the end of the book was quite hurried and wanted to learn more. I got little of Marian’s feelings or character after the flight, in contrast to the rest of the book where she was very much alive with her thoughts and actions. Did the flight cause Marian to lose herself a bit (or entirely)?
4. To me there is a bit of a juxtaposition between Marian as a child and as an adult. Is this juxtaposition an important part of the book?
5. There is a lot in the book about power and the wresting of power from one person to another, particularly in relation to Marian, to gender and the role of women, and to money. I found some of the prose really rich in relation to some of these themes.
The story itself is captivating and interesting. I found it to be a real page-turner of a book and its size didn't matter. However, as mentioned above, I did find the story about Hadley rather irritating and would rather the author had spent more time on Marian's story, particularly after the flight, than the side show that was Hadley. That said, its a book well worth reading and discussing and one that I will recommend others to read.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and am in awe of the amount of research that Maggie Shipstead must have conducted.
The novel is well crafted with well rounded characters, but maybe suffers a little from too many individuals. The novel spans many decades and takes the reader to many different locations on different continents.
The story of Marian Graves had me heading to google to see if she was a real character such is the convincing weaving of her aviation prowess. This novel cleverly includes characters who actually lived and their history alongside that of Marian’s is fascinating.
I did not enjoy the character of Hadley and found her story set in the present, irked me and had me racing through to be back in the timeframe of Marian.
I can see talk of film rights if this hasn’t already happened.
I enjoyed the beauty of the descriptive landscapes and was thrilled to read about Missoula Montana.. a place I recently visited. This novel is an epic read with romance and adventure and gave rise to very interesting discussion in my reading group.