Paula McLain's latest novel, Circling the Sun, published in July 2015, is a must read for readers who like a well-written novel with beautifully described scenery, clashes of cultures, desires and lifestyles, and a strong female protagonist. I was drawn into the novel by the expertly crafted writing and the beautifully effective use of descriptive language. I devoured the book because of the storyline, the lives turned upside down and sideways, the friendships, both strong and superficial, and yes, by the descriptions of what I visualized as an almost corrupt, indolent lifestyle.
Based upon the life of Beryl Clutterbuck Purves Markham, the first woman to fly solo East to West across the Atlantic ocean, the book is more about training and raising horses than it is about flying. It is more about the unfettered childhood and young adult years of this English girl raised in Kenya than it is about her adult adventures as a pilot. It is more about disappointment and disillusionment that it is about soaring happiness and successes. But, through it all it is most about a spirit that doesn't give up, that won't be beaten, and that forever dreams.
This is a historical novel, but not as one usually thinks of historical novels. The time period is not one from centuries past with ladies' maids ready to dress the heroine in London's finest. It is about a time period that some of us know from earlier pieces of literature, specifically Isak Dineesn's Out of Africa. The people, the landscape, the problems, and the society of that epic are central to this work. In fact, Beryl's and Karen Blixen's lives are tied together. They become wary friends as they both strive to hold the love of the same man.
Part I begins with Beryl and her father being abandoned by her mother and brother because her mother could not face life in Kenya. Beryl was four years old. She grew up on a plot of land that her father intended to turn into his dream. During her childhood, she was not schooled, wore no shoes, had no proper training, and in the eyes of society ran wild. Her friends were the nearby natives. She loved them and their ways. She spent as much time as possible with them and they welcomed her. As she matured, Father and daughter worked together to build a farm, a riding stable, and to establish her father as a well-respected member of the "horsey" set of English ex-pats living in Africa. Still, she was living her unfettered life.
All of that, of course, did change. Beryl had to grow up, to find her place in the world and to conform to the white, English society that she was rightfully a part of, even in far off Kenya. She tried, she really did, but the only things that made her happy were her days spent with the horses, with her native friends, and finally with her love. The outside world brought confusion, confinement, and changes in her free spirited character.
Beryl's life and accomplishments are beautifully portrayed by Ms. McLain. Beryl was a beauty and a tomboy. She had a strong sense of self, but was lost in society. The trials and tribulations she endured
were often enlarged by Beryl's own desire to be none other than herself. This desire to be true to oneself is described by Beryl while talking with Karen. Beryl says "We're all of us afraid of many things, but if you make yourself smaller or let your fear confine you, then you really aren't your own person at all--are you? The real question is whether or not you will risk what it takes to be happy."
Beryl took those risks and tried at the same time to be true to herself. Was she ever truly happy? I don't know. I've tried to find out. I've since read more about Beryl through other works about her. I guess my next step is to read her memoir, West with the Night, published in the 1942. But even that will not give me the full picture for she lived another 40+ years after it's publication.
I highly recommend this book. I can see many in-depth discussions by book clubs after reading it. I received this book as a pre-publication uncorrected proof. There was no readers' guide for book clubs. Perhaps the final copy had that added feature. By the way, her record setting flight is only part of the book as the prologue and the author's note.
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