Publication date: May 2021
Review, short version: Three out of four skunks.
Review, long version:
I’d heard of, but hadn’t read, any of Maggie Shipstead’s books, so when her latest, Great Circle, caught my eye, I thought I’d look into it.
The information on her website was scanty, at best:
So I read the blurb on Amazon, which pretty much matches the blurb on the book’s dust jacket. The premise sounded promising – the lead characters are a female, Marian, who becomes an aviator in the early 20th century, and an actress, Hadley, who portrays the aviator in a 21st-century movie.
The book is 608 pages and that appealed to me, as well – I like sinking into “big” books and staying there for a good, long time.
Sometimes I take notes when I read books, so I can refer back to an earlier character or event. I did this with Great Circle, and I was only on page 15 when I knew there was a problem. I wrote:
“Does all this information pages 15-19 have anything to do with the story, or is it extraneous?”
The more I read, the more I wondered, “What does this have to do with the story? Why does the author think I need to know all this?”
Here’s an example.
We meet a character, Annabel, who will be the mother of the 20th-century Marian, and Marian’s twin brother Jamie. On page 24 we learn that at an early age, Annabel’s father began sexually abusing her. At age seven, she hiked up her dress so the cook’s son could see her genitals. Annabel’s Nanny has taught her to refer to her genitals as her “cabbage,” while a boy’s genitals were “his carrot.”
Annabel’s cabbage-exposing ends with her being caught by Nanny and locked in a dark closet, and then her mother “beat her on her bare legs and backside and called her wicked, wicked, wicked.”
At some point, when Nanny isn’t around, Annabel begins exploring her cabbage – masturbating. But at age nine her mother catches her, and again calls her “wicked.” “The next night Nanny bound Annabel’s wrists, and she slept with her fingers interlaced as though in prayer.”
A doctor is summoned, and his treatment involves applying a leech to Annabel’s cabbage. She’s also given nightly medication that sends her “into a bottomless sleep.” It appears her father continues the sexual abuse, even during her drugged state.
Annabel begins menstruating at age 12, a monthly reminder, her mother says, to “be always on guard against, yes, again, always: wickedness.” Annabel is sent away to school, and resumes masturbating.
End of example.
It’s too sad and it’s too bad that Annabel had a horrible childhood, but since it appears that Annabel dies when the twins are infants and has no further presence in their lives, let’s go back to my questions:
“What does all this have to do with the story?”
“Why does the author think I need to know all this?”
Annabel gets married and become the mother of twins Marian and Jamie. When the twins are infants, Annabel is on an ocean liner with them that sinks. The twins are rescued but Annabel vanishes, presumed dead.
If the twins never meet their mother, what the hell does Annabel’s sexual abuse by her father and her masturbation and menstruating have to do with Marian becoming an aviator and Hadley portraying Marian in a movie?
The more I read, the more I wondered, “Is this all TMI, or am I crazy?”
Though, after the past 15 months, who’s to say what’s crazy?
I also wondered, “This book got rave reviews and was on the New York Times best seller list. Am I the only person who feels this way?”
Ah…a few Amazon reviewers to my rescue.
The last time I checked, The Great Circle had only about 1,200 reviews, but 87 percent were four- or five-stars. I headed straight for the bad reviews and discovered that no, I wasn’t the only one who felt as I did:
Beware: SUPERFLUOUS INFORMATION and FREQUENT SUMMARIZATION… NOT WORTH THE 600+ page read
…MOST of the information is extraneous to the story. After I finished the book I kept thinking to myself “Why did I need to know ALL of that?” …The superfluous information throughout this novel did NOT impart a deeper connection or empathy with the characters… I think the novel could easily be edited and slimmed to 400 or less pages without sacrificing the momentum of the story.
Thought about quitting several times
I’m an avid reader and usually agree with rave reviews. Sadly, this is one I don’t. I love long books but found this to be too wordy and pretty boring in several places. Too many details that didn’t have anything to do with the story. It felt like the author wanted to show off her extensive research.
Far too much detail that just adds to the length of the book without being meaningful – boring.
I kept slogging through Great Circle to page 50 and gave up.
Life’s too short to slog.
Earlier I referenced the book’s dust jacket, and I understand that its function is to sell the book. Now I’ve reread it and have to say – this book’s description was in overdrive:
“Epic and emotional, meticulously researched and gloriously told, Great Circle is an astounding feat of storytelling and an exhilarating tour de force.”
I’m guessing the dust jacket author was also getting…
Update: June 30, 2021
When it comes to books, clearly I am clueless as to what’s hot…and what’s not.
Even knowing this, I’d barely finished writing this disparaging review about Maggie Shipstead’s best seller, The Great Circle, when I was nonetheless amazed and astounded by this, in my Sunday newspaper’s Arts+Culture section:
Not just an article about Shipstead and her book – a front page article
A front page that jumps to another full page.
With not one, or two, but five images.
All of…Maggie Shipstead.
I’ve yet to see my newspaper do a spread like this about President Biden, or any head of state, or community leader, or, or, or – and they go way overboard for this author and her verbose-to-the-max book?
And speaking of getting paid by the word? The newspaper review – it’s 1,400 fawning words, like these:
“It’s rare that a book can be described as both a ‘feminist epic’ and a ‘perfect summer novel,’ but Shipstead has skillfully crafted a compelling novel that blends both historical fiction and modern-day travails.”
“Shipstead builds their worlds with the deftness of a fantasy writer and cleverly inserts suspense with the precision of a master thriller writer. The result is both poetic and precise, grounded and glorious.”
Did this reviewer read the same book that I did?
Well, that I tried to read?
Since I’m not getting paid by the word, I’ll leave it at that.
And leave The Great Circle here: