Review: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

circling the sun by paula mclainFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction
Length: 384 pages
Publisher: Ballantine
Date Released: July 28, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Paula McLain, author of the phenomenal bestseller The Paris Wife, now returns with her keenly anticipated new novel, transporting readers to colonial Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman—Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.

Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.

Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who also live and love by their own set of rules. But it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.

Set against the majestic landscape of early-twentieth-century Africa, McLain’s powerful tale reveals the extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit.

My Review:

“Are you married or do you live in Kenya?” was a common saying about the European colony in Kenya during the early 20th century.

Beryl Markham almost seems to embody the phrase. She was “the other woman” in Karen Blixen’s famous relationship with adventurer Denys Finch Hatton (remember Out of Africa?). But Finch Hatton was “the other man” in Karen Blixen’s marriage to Baron Bror Blixen. Who in turn had another woman whom he married the minute his divorce to Karen was final.

Denys Finch Hatton
Denys Finch Hatton

Finch Hatton was infamously single. He seems to have cut a wide swath through the females of the European colony, whether they were married or not. And Finch Hatton almost seems to be the central figure of Circling the Sun. The story purports to be a fictionalized autobiography of Markham, but reads more like a recitation of her terrible choices in men and her continual angst about Finch Hatton.

Even though the Circling the Sun title refers to Markham’s famous solo flight from England to North America, the first woman to solo west across the Atlantic, I don’t think it is a coincidence that Finch Hatton’s biography is titled Too Close to the Sun. He seems to have been the sun around which Markham (and Karen Blixen) circled from the time they met until his untimely death in an airplane crash.

I read Markham’s own autobiography, West with the Night, several years ago, but it still feels like a much more complete picture of her fascinating and adventurous life than Circling the Sun. For one thing, West with the Night continues her story after her iconic flight.

Circling the Sun reads more like a recitation of Beryl’s many and usually disastrous love affairs. She seems to have continuously leaped before she looked, and ended up in hot water every time.

She was undoubtedly a trail blazer. She was a famous and well-respected horse race trainer, and was the first woman to receive a trainer’s license in the colony. Unlike Karen Blixen, who came to Africa as an adult, Beryl Markham and her family transplanted to Kenya when she was a small child. And even though her mother left Kenya, Beryl’s father and Beryl when Beryl was still a small child. Beryl’s experience of Africa is of growing up without much supervision except from the nearby villagers. Her father was too busy trying to keep his farm financially afloat.

But as Beryl grows up, she goes from one absolutely disastrous relationship to another. I felt a certain amount of irony. On the one hand, she feels like a modern woman, someone who would be more at home in today’s society, where women do not have to marry to have a financial identity or to be considered adults. But on that other hand, because she was a woman in the early 20th century and not the 21st, she kept marrying the wrong man in order to have someone, because Finch Hatton was unavailable.

The flight that cemented Markham’s fame is used in this book as a framing story. We don’t see nearly enough of her preparation for the flight, her decision to undertake it, and absolutely nothing of what happened after.

west with the night by beryl markhamEscape Rating C-: Beryl Markham led an absolutely fascinating life in a time and place that is utterly gone. This version of her story reduces all of her achievements and tragedies to a chronicle of her angst over her catastrophically bad choices in men and relationships.

There were bits of this story I liked, especially the parts about her childhood in Africa, but the deeper the story got into her romantic angst, the less I liked it. If you’re truly interested in this amazing woman, just read West with the Night.

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