Cover art for "A Passage North" owned by Alfred A. Knopf

Is it even possible to write a book review? Or, a review of anything, for that matter? As a writer for The Michigan Daily, I review books regularly, so this was a troubling question to ponder, but the impossibility of distilling anything into a review has become increasingly clear. Paradoxically, I’ve only come to realize this while trying to write a review of Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle,” shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.

This book, with its heft rivaled only by its depth, follows two parallel narratives: One is that of Marian Graves, a fictional Earhart-esque pilot who disappeared over the Arctic in the 1950s; the other, set in modern-day, is that of Hadley Baxter, a disgraced actress trying to salvage her career by starring in a biopic about Marian.

The differences between the women are chasmic. Marian grew up in squalor in Montana, able to pursue her passion for flying planes only because of an amorous — and abusive — patron and bootlegger named Barclay Macqueen. In contrast, Hadley was raised in the spotlight of Hollywood, her young adult life defined by her leading role in a popular YA film series until a scandal threatened to topple her into obscurity. Yet, at the same time, the women are remarkably similar: Both are orphans who were raised by dissolute uncles, both operate in worlds dominated by oppressive men who are ready to burn them as witches, and both are marked with an irrepressible desire to find a purpose that always seems to elude their efforts.

But, even as I write this, these hardly seem like sufficient descriptions of the two women, and I have to return to the question I began with: Is it possible to describe them? “Great Circle” revolves around this idea and how people and grand events are their own self-contained infinities. “The world unfurls and unfurls, and there is always more,” Marian writes. “A line, a circle, is insufficient. I look forward, and there is the horizon. I look back. Horizon. What’s past is lost. I am already lost to my future.”

The author emphasizes the expanse of human experience by focusing on the little, seemingly innocuous details of the women’s lives. The novel doesn’t dwell, for example, on Marian’s reactions to the death of her loved ones. Time isn’t spent exploring Hadley’s life before her Hollywood downfall. Instead, the reader is treated to descriptions of the escapism of flight, to weed-fueled monologues and mundane dinner parties. Unexpectedly, the reader comes to know the characters more deeply in these in-between moments than during the moments of great anguish and joy. It’s only through a lifetime of these moments that anyone could hope to understand Marian or Hadley. 

And, for Hadley, as she tries to portray Marian with as much fidelity as she can manage, the impossibility of knowing Marian becomes a comforting revelation. Because, in truth, what does Hadley’s portrayal matter? Even if she were to study every available piece of information about Marian, “the truth about Marian seemed too big, too amorphous for me to gather. She had spread out like debris from a wreck, drifting bits and pieces that didn’t connect.” To outside observers, people like Marian were “Like constellations. It’s impossible to ever fully explain yourself while you’re alive, and then once you’re dead, forget about it — you’re at the mercy of the living.” All of these outsiders trying to peer into Marian’s life are doing the same thing they do to Hadley, trying to construct images of the figure that are easiest to digest, “that make sense to them and seem so true to them but are actually arbitrary.”

How can we ever hope to reproduce even a shade of those we observe? Shipstead proposes an imperfect solution: Focus on the mundane. Not only does Shipstead do this in practice, exploring the most inconsequential moments of these two women’s lives, she also explores this idea through Marian’s brother, Jamie. Jamie, a sensitive and artistic pacifist, enlists in World War II as a “combat artist,” tasked with painting scenes from the war to convey the scope of the disaster to the world. But this too is impossible. Even the broad strokes of calamity are not enough to express the enormity. “Maybe that was where the scale of the war lay, in the bits and pieces,” he writes. And even listing these bits and pieces, “to make (people) marvel at their number and variety and mundaneness (consider the journey of a single can opener),” was impossible because “the list could never be long enough to make his point.”

The expanse of the human experience that Shipstead illustrates is remarkable, and the ways in which Hadley and Marian’s stories circle each other give the novel an eerie cyclicality. Plot points and characters introduced at the beginning of the novel end up bobbing back up to the surface at the end; two seeming strangers, separated by time and space, occupy the same headspace as each other, yearning for freedom. For the most part, side characters felt worthwhile, as captivating as the two heroines, their psyches explored with just as much nuance. 

Shipstead communicates a visceral image of the human experience. The reader witnesses the two women explore their sexualities, their traumas and their places in the world. With Marian, the reader is shown the fear cultivated by an abusive relationship, with her forced marriage to the wealthy Barclay Macqueen. As for Hadley, the severe scrutiny women face — especially in Hollywood — is explored. The reader bears witness to these in the quiet moments, like when Marian conspires with Macqueen’s sister to prevent a pregnancy or when Hadley is trapped in her home by paparazzi.

All that being said, the novel wasn’t perfect. There were certain themes that could have been developed and explored a bit more — some of Marian’s relationships could have been expanded on, and her headspace after she escapes the abusive Macqueen isn’t deeply prodded. A few auxiliary characters (including Macqueen himself) felt underdeveloped and one-dimensional; their roles felt interchangeable with any faceless character. 

Overall, though, Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle” is an achievement in showing the impossibility of depicting life. The novel is like a bunch of concentric circles, periodically kaleidoscoping to put the characters’ individual narratives into a broader context. The result isn’t a discouragement from trying to understand the infinite experiences of others (or from the practice of writing book reviews). Instead, it’s a call to continue the attempts at understanding, even if these attempts don’t result in an accurate picture of reality. Perhaps understanding others is merely another way to try to understand ourselves.

Daily Arts Writer Tate Lafrenier can be reached at tlafren@umich.edu.