Circling the Sun tells the wonderful, captivating story of Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. McLain has created a highly memorable portrait of a woman far ahead of her time. Having grown up in Kenya, running free with her best friend Kibii, a Kip boy who eventually grows up into a warrior, Beryl would like nothing more than her independence, and the ability to run a farm and train horses all on her own.
However, due to the social constraints of her time, she needed to be married in order to be stable, and the book follows a string of failed relationships as she continues to look, not for love, but for freedom. The one man she does somewhat love is Denys Finch Hatton, who some readers may recognize as the character played by Robert Redford in the movie Out of Africa. Unfortunately, they were far too much alike — she recognized in him the same wanderlust and desire for freedom as she had in herself, and knew he would never let himself be tied down. Even when she meets her romantic rival Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep’s character in Out of Africa), Beryl knew that Karen’s desire for a stable relationship with Denys could never happen.
I love books about strong, independent woman, and Paula McLain has created a fantastic figure in Beryl Markham. Part of me wishes there had been more in the story about her aviation, but I loved learning all about her horse training, and her struggles to build a career even as various men around her (an ex-husband, a boss with a jealous wife) took credit for her work. I love her practical approach to relationships, and how, even with Denys, whom she did love, her own life and needs always came first, and I can only imagine how her life would have been if she’d lived at a different time in history.
The book is engrossing, but not a quick read. Rather, it’s a book to savour and to get lost in. I love McLain’s descriptions of Africa and of the Englishmen and women who made it their home, and I love the contrast with the lives in London. During one of Beryl’s relationships, her husband loved her slacks and casual air in Africa, but then asked her to don a more traditional dress and makeup to meet his mother in London, and Beryl called him out on it and asked if his mother wouldn’t accept her in slacks. I love how that just set up the two separate worlds that Beryl needed to straddle, and how she needed to put on a different face for each world. It’s clear which world she truly belongs to, yet she still needs to make nice with London society. There’s a great scene where she says she’s never been tempted by drugs, because she fears losing control, and yet later, while doing a silly party game with socialite friends, she realizes she may need the numbing effects of alcohol just to get through the night.
Overall, this is a good read about a fantastic woman. It made me want to watch Out of Africa (even though the movie was about Karen and Denys, rather than Beryl) and possibly read Beryl’s memoir to learn more about her.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.