Dee's Reviews > Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
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it was ok
bookshelves: netgalley

Paula McLain's latest novel, narrating the life and times of pioneering aviator and horse racer Beryl Markham, is labeled as historical fiction that transports readers "to colonial Kenya in the 1920s." With that kind of a sales pitch, you'd expect at least a halfway realistic portrait of the manners and social conditions of the times, with more than one token black character thrown in. It is, after all, a novel set in Africa, based on a historical figure.

Yet, Circling the Sun is all about white colonialists and their self-enclosed world on their plantations in the East African Protectorate, where the natives are hardly more than an exotic backdrop for the adventures and love affairs of a British floozy. As somebody who considers Proust a page-turner, I cannot fault a book for portraying a select social circle and ignoring unsavory realities. However, if you want to put on your rosy glasses and paint nostalgic pictures of worlds that never existed, there are better places than white settlements in colonial Africa.

Those were the times, after all, where Africans were banned from direct political participation. In 1942, six years after the closing date of this novel, a resistance was launched by several tribes against colonial rule that in the 1950s and 60s saw some 90,000 people executed, tortured or maimed by the British (according to Al Jazeera, not the novel.)

If Circling the Sun had at least touched on such issues, it would have gained much in realism and could be called a historical novel instead of glorified chick-lit or self-indulgent, shallow outpourings of nostalgia. The book could have, at the very least, stepped out of Markham's mind for a sentence to give a larger context.

Knowing how the novel romanticized a painful chapter in Kenyan history made this an uncomfortable read that felt about as real as a Harlequin novel. The first part of the book offered a heartwarming tale of an innocent childhood spent in the wilderness; of an unruly British girl, or tomboy, playing with a boy from a nearby tribe before social conventions force them apart. The flowy writing and atmospheric setting reminded me of coming-of-age stories set in the wild, in the tradition of The Jungle Book or Anna of Green Gables.

I wanted to carry on. I thought the girl would grow up, and we'd get something more than a children's tale. We'd get the reflections of a grown woman living in complicated times, observing social tensions and race relations. A woman who defied conventions and lived on her own terms. Who flew across the Atlantic and mounted wild horses.

But Markham only grows more annoying and selfish with age. She refuses to stop riding when she becomes pregnant, and this is held up as an example of an uncompromising lifestyle. She falls in love with a man after he throws some Whitman quotes her way, then hops into bed with another she doesn't care much about before he flees the country to escape scandal. She keeps talking about being financially independent, but keeps using men for money. Ahead of her time? Not when it comes to birth control.

I don't mind reading about narcissists, cheaters or idiots and their ridiculous life choices. They're types that are central in many of my favorite novels. But what's infuriating is when a selfish fool is held up as a role model for women, and when a tedious account of her affairs and intrigues is called a story that "transports you" to Kenya.

I skimmed the last third of this book, frustrated that such a self-indulgent character was being passed off as progressive. The writing, which flowed richly at the start, degenerated into passages similar to those Hollywood quasi-intellectual quotes of the "if you build it they will come" variety. Tired dialogue, with cliche reflections on the nature of women's independence.

After meeting Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen (author of Out of Africa,) Markham starts comparing herself to Blixen and theorizing about which woman can snag the rustic, Whitman-quoting adventurer who's now her "soulmate." Years later, when the two say goodbye, Markham has her Field of Dreams moment and reflects on the novel that Blixen would soon write about her years in Africa:

"And from those pages, I would be absent."

... And that's all the more reason to read Dinesen.

(I don't know whether Markham was really this tiresome in the flesh, or whether Circling the Sun just portrays her as such. Perhaps those interested in her eventful life would do better to read her memoir, West with the Night, which won Hemingway's praise, instead of this rosy-coloured "oh my Africa!" colonialist romance.)

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Reading Progress

July 25, 2015 – Started Reading
July 25, 2015 – Shelved
July 25, 2015 –
page 57
July 27, 2015 –
page 220
July 28, 2015 – Shelved as: netgalley
July 28, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-39 of 39 (39 new)

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message 1: by Laura (new)

Laura Leaney I loved Beryl Markham's book West With the Night, so it's disappointing to discover that she might be like this.

message 2: by Vintage274 (new)

Vintage274 I don't know how anyone can read West With the Night and not see Markham's innate selfishness. She might have been a woman ahead of her time, but she was not a "nice" person. And neither she nor Blixen ever moved out of their lack of acknowledgment of the "other" Africa. I think it's unfair to chastise a writer for not addressing social issues of the time when these characters were real people who lived in a small, closed circle of white privilege and viewed Africa through that lens.

message 3: by Laura (new)

Laura Leaney Well, perhaps I'm just not that wise. Or, I may have been entranced by the beauty of the writing, which I feel impelled to defend.

Ashley Bergman Carlin I feel like this is an unfair review-- what if Markham really was just this self-absorbed (and I think that she was)? What if she just didn't notice anything that didn't really affect her? It would be equally wrong for McLain to invent a perspective that Markham never had.

message 5: by Verb sleuth (new)

Verb sleuth Bravo for swimming against the tide. Your review impressed me; I'm off to read your blog.
Thank you.

message 6: by JZ (new) - rated it 3 stars

JZ NJ You nailed this book, but it took me to West with the Wind- a gem, and, absolutely not written by Beryl, IMHO and others. How does an "uneducated" in a bookish wa, Beryl, write with such literate, mythological and historical references. She Doesn't her third husband, schumacher a Hollywood ghost writer clearly did. Here's the frustrating part, neither Circling the Sun or West with The Wind. Reveals the true, sad, damaged, manipulative Beryl. But. All of her weaknesses don't diminish her accomplishments as a woman against all odds. So for this I'm grateful, Circling the Sun led me to West With the Wind- and, together a glimpse of this enigma, known as Beryl.

message 7: by Shelley (new)

Shelley Goldstein I am not sure what book you read, but the book I read was wonderful as was the main character.

message 8: by Amy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Amy Agree with your review 100%. You nailed it. Entitled snobs with no morals should not be glorified in novels such as this.

Barb Kocsis Do you really think they were glorified. I thought she accurately depicted as who they were, spoiled aristocrats. I think that was her point.

Sarah McBride I saw no glorification in this novel. It was all quite sad in a pathetic way (the colonials' behavior, etc), and I thought the book did well to make that known. It's a book about Beryl, not an essay on colonial Kenya. It sounds like you wanted to read an editorial and not a novel. And yes, she was progressive for her time, but not perfectly so...I thought that was the point?

Nathan Frankel My sentiments exactly. If I hadn't been stuck on a flight with only this book I don't think I would have made it to the end. A pity, I had high hopes and enjoy well-written historical fiction.

message 12: by Elena (new)

Elena Potanos robbins I had a feeling this would be the case just from reading the description. Glad I read the comments before buying the book! Thanks!

message 13: by Nicolette (new)

Nicolette Wernick As an born Londoner I object that you Americans have to have all your ideas be always politically correct.
You are reading a novel about a different era. People thought differently.
You cannot project a modern rationale on historical perceptions.
This was the Kenya that Markham was living in.
This is what she saw and wrote about.
Readers, grow up
Nicolette Wernick

Nathan Frankel I'm hardly politically correct, actually quite far from it. I thought it was poor historical fiction. Take away every element in the book about the prevailing attitudes during the time, and I still don't think it's a good read. I disliked the book on multiple levels. To each their own, many people enjoyed reading this. Many readers enjoy harlequin novels - I don't.

Susan I much preferred 'Straight on till Morning' by Mary S Lovell.

Janice Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I couldn't have said it better.

Jeannie I can see your point, but I think you are looking in the wrong genre for a political commentary on the Africa of the time. You could expect a girl abandoned by her mother, living in colonial Africa, and raised by a selfish father to be no less than the character portrayed in the novel. Doubt she would have become a social activist. I think a romantic portrayal is what McLain intended and achieved-and what's wrong with old Hollywood movies?

message 18: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Goldman Spot-on review. Exactly my thoughts as I forced myself to finish this book. The writing was uninspired and at times annoying, the main character was unsympathetic and not well fleshed out, and there was a pronounced lack of insight into the era being portrayed.

Christa JoAnna I love you be this book. You are an ass!

Kylie Funk Kramer A-freaking-men. I saw nothing redeemable in Markham and raging entitlement of the ex-pats was too much.

message 21: by Beverly (new)

Beverly Johnson I wish I had written your review. Dee, youve summarized my feelings exactly. Dont like it and am trying to do more than skim it in order to go to book club where its this months selection. I usually like the books but not this month. It did start off holding my attention but she really didn't do it for me as far as fantasy she-roes go
PS I liked Out of Africa

Becky Parry I agree with almost everything you said.

message 23: by Amelia (new) - added it

Amelia C I suspect she was MORE tiresome than in these pages from what I have read about her. She seemed to be a very self serving person...

message 24: by Susan (new)

Susan Read West with the Night, Markham's memoir and to get Markham's words and story. It is a much better read and you will be impressed with the Beryl Markham's accomplishments.

Nicole Curtis I agree with everything you said.

message 26: by Lori (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lori You would have a blog. Bhahahumbug. Its really your time to shine when complaining about a NOVEL.......

Debra Harper While I agree with much of your well written review, in particular, I shared your expectations whilst reading the first 25% of this book only to find myself more and more disappointed as the book dragged on, I find myself feeling the need to defend her. With a father who first moved his whole family to Africa, seemingly on a whim, a mother who left her with no explanation and then in her mid teens, her father deserts her as well, I am not sure how she could have been anything other than selfish.

Angela Blaikie THANK YOU. This is what I have been trying to articulate.

Diane yes.

Gabrielle Beryl Markham wrote a much more riveting memoir than is portrayed here, "West with the Night"... I found her much more likeable there...

Elizabeth B. I have to disagree. As others have pointed out, this critique is an unreasonable application of 21st century values to an early 20th century tale. Not every book (especially fiction) has to provide every perspective on the world it's set in. I'm sure this very insular colonial experience of Kenya is exactly what the British living there at the time perceived. The book is not a history of Kenya; it's an imagined life of an unusual and unusually accomplished woman in a fascinating time and place. It's portraying the world through her eyes, so of course it's sympathetic to her character; she's not passing judgment on herself. You dismiss her as selfish and entitled, both true - but that fails to acknowledge the difficulties she faced in her life, abandoned by her mother and then eventually by her father too, and stuck in a world that offered virtually no legitimate outlet for women to live any role other than somebody's wife. Women in such a world who insist on using their brains and talents despite that are rarely popular and usually viewed as selfish. I enjoyed it very much, and although I read West With the Night years ago, I'd forgotten much of it and this has me looking forward to re-reading it, along with Out of Africa.

Betty Davis I agree wholeheartedly. And that is a great point about her touting her financial independence but then using men for money!

message 33: by Anna (new)

Anna Great review--can tell by the nerves you hit (some illiterate.) I only found my way here by the home page via "what's trending in historical fiction." People seem confused by this genre as well. And saving the best for last: no matter what era, whatever social or class structure is in place, human beings are human beings. And we can judge and should because good old Great Britain (and other imperial forces) sailing around the globe, planting their flag in the soil of whatever shore they land, and imposing English language, culture. and values while extracting labor and other resources is appalling and led to devastating effects in many former colonies that exists to this day.

message 34: by Mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark 'Faction' invariably polarises opinion and this novel certainly seems to have done just that. I see your disappointment, Dee, that the scope is restricted to ' white colonialists and their self-enclosed world on their plantations in the East African Protectorate, where the natives are hardly more than an exotic backdrop for their adventures and love affairs..' and this does give the self absorbed 'Ex Pats' an annoying sense of 'entitlement' ... But I take from the novel a well drawn vivid character, a free and independent spirit, the victim of a hopelessly dysfunctional family and her teenage and formative years blighted by circumstance, and being forced to live her life at the sharp end, feeding off scraps. A fascinating life and an extraordinary woman.

message 35: by Sue (new) - rated it 3 stars

Sue Schermerhorn Loved the first half of this book but the last part dragged. It's like the author gave up on it. Disappointing.

message 36: by [deleted user] (new)

Two chapters in I could sense I was NOT in for a treat, and after reading your review, I 100% agreed and put it down, deciding to read “West with the Night” instead. Thank you!!!!!

Denise an unreasonable review, in my opinion. Although not nearly the book I was hoping it to be, it was still an interesting read.

Heather I completely agree! You said it perfectly! Just wrote my review and all I could think of this woman is how selfish she was. I forced myself to keep going and finish and it was such an unsatisfactory ending.

Susan I agree with this review. I could not go beyond the first third of this book.

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