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Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
Historical fiction

Circling the Sun

by Paula McLain

Quick take

Read it to be astounded by the human spirit's ability to conquer so much. Enjoy it because it's excellent.

Why I love it

Allison Williams
Guest Judge

I read Circling the Sun with my book group. I was initially intrigued by the fact that it is set in Kenya, as that is one of only five countries in Africa to which I've traveled. I knew little else when I started reading, but found that I relished every single page. It became the anthem to my summer -- my reason to anticipate bedtime with excitement and curiosity, when I could have my nightly check-in with this fascinating protagonist who alternately frustrated and inspired me. This is the amazing story of real woman's life (please don't look her up online - it might spoil the story of her wonderfully unpredictable journey!)

In 1904, a three year-old named Beryl moves from England to Kenya (before it was "Kenya") with her mother, father and brother. Two years later, her mother and older brother return to England (for reasons I am reluctant to reveal - no spoilers!), leaving Beryl in Kenya to be raised by her father, who trains horses and runs a farm. Growing up adjacent to and immersed in several families from the Kipsigis tribe, Beryl becomes an aspiring young warrior (having never absorbed Western expectations of girlhood), passionate racehorse trainer, and adventurer. We first meet her, in a flash-forward prologue, while she's performing her ultimate occupation: pilot.

Beryl's aviation prowess — she makes history by becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west — seems nearly impossible to imagine as the story of her early life begins. By giving us a glimpse into her future, the author sets us up for an amazing journey as I found myself asking: How on Earth is this where Beryl ends up? McLain challenges us with the ending that we know is coming, and she thwarts every effort to make sense of it all before it's time.

Read our exclusive Q&A with Guest Judge Allison Williams here

It helps that this book is beautifully written. As an English major, I am a stickler for grammar, syntax, structure, and language. I found myself highlighting many of her stunning phrases. An example:

"While a leopard moth that had got caught in the curtains stopped struggling for a moment, and realized it was free."

Grammatically, this sentence is...problematic. However, I was repeatedly struck by the beauty and profundity of McLain's imagery. It is likely that the language is deliberately rough, for the "world" of the novel is a rough one with moments of sheer beauty. This description also applies to the protagonist.

Beryl is, after all, wonderfully unpolished and irreverent. She is brave and naïve - a combination that proves both disastrous and fortuitous as she moves through her life. My favorite moments are those in which McLain draws comparisons between Beryl and both wild animals and Africa itself:

"[a lion] can only be exactly what he is, what his nature dictates, and nothing else."

"...that was something I loved about Africa. The way it got at you from outside in and never let up, and never let you go."

Beryl is torn between two worlds -an English girl born at the turn of the twentieth century, she is also naturally and thoroughly wild. It is unknown to us or others whether her wildness is nature or nurture, but I'm inclined to say that it is both. The inevitability of her (and everyone else's) path is the central drive of the novel.

"It was possible everyone ended up in the same place no matter which path we took or how often we fell to our knees, undoubtedly wiser for all of it."

Read this book for an emotional vacation to a fascinating moment in world history. Read it to be astounded by the human spirit's ability to conquer so much. Read it to be inspired by bravery in the face of true mortal danger. Read it for the romance! Read it because it happened. Enjoy it because it's excellent.

Read our exclusive Q&A with Guest Judge Allison Williams here

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Member thoughts

All (919)
All (919)
Love (519)
Like (320)
Dislike (80)
977 ratings
  • 53% Love
  • 33% Like
  • 8% Dislike
  • Trenton, TX

    Such an incredible life she lived. I was drawn into this world and want more of Africa! I felt the need to stop highlight and meditate on my passages. A truly incredible novel based on a someone I admire

  • Tulsa, OK

    Out of Africa is my favorite film. Robert Redford is Denys Finch Hatton and the line of Meryl Streep's "I had a farm in Africa" gives me chills. Denys and Karen are in this book. 1920 Kenya~~Glorious!

  • Los Angeles, CA

    Loved Beryl's story and was excited to learn of someone I had never heard of. She is truly a bad ass, and though flawed, admits these flaws and goes after what she wants with zeal. What a strong woman

  • Portland, OR

    I'll be honest, it's not the plot that is overly memorable here, several months later. It's the writing. Yes, the character is fascinating, and one may love or hate her - that's part of the interest.

  • Miami , FL

    This is a great story based on real people. I enjoyed learning the history and also about the struggles and choices women had to make not so long ago to open the way for us to enjoy being feee today.

  • White Lake, MI

    This book was amazing. It should be required reading for young women. It was really inspirational, emotional & thought provoking. Brave, independent women will find this book sad and yet encouraging.

  • Wichita, KS

    I loved getting to know Beryl Markham, even the fictional version of her. This story pulled me right in and I was surprised by how much of it was true. Fascinating characters in a disappeared world.

  • Chester, NH

    I really enjoyed this book. It felt like watching one of those wonderful old black and white white movies about Africa. Even better that this was based on a real life ‘woman a ahead of her time’.

  • Franklin, MA

    Absolutely loved it. If you loved the movie Out of Africa, this book is for you. It has everything I want in a story: heartache, adventure, exotic setting, love, loss...and a strong female character!

  • Olympia, WA

    McLain's novel is wonderfully evocative of time, place, and character. I was so pleased to meet the phenomenal figure of Beryl and be introduced to Kenya through her eyes. Every page was a pleasure.

  • Farmers Branch, TX

    This book was AMAZING. Beryl is strong, real and her story is magic. While the author's story is fiction, it is littered with real life adventures. You will want to go on safari after reading this.

  • New York, NY

    Incredibly well-written, brings you right into the life of a woman coming of age in Africa at the turn of the century. Her journey to independence is balanced with adventure and romance. Great pace

  • Maple Grove, MN

    I loved this book for its rich detail on a world I know nothing of, I felt it described that location and timeline well. I had a tough time relating to the characters, but maybe I didn't have to.

  • Topsham, ME

    This was a terrific book...I do feel like the book jacket description was a little misleading in that the pieces about flying came within what seemed to be the last 20 something pages of the book.

  • Arlington, MA

    I couldn't stop reading this book. I'd try to, and then I'd pick it back up minutes later because I had to keep reading. The novel was gorgeously written and I was so intrigued by Beryl's story.

  • Pensacola, FL

    A fantastic + inspiring story about an independent woman who broke through the gender boundaries of her time. I was sad to learn that this novel was based on a true story that I'd not ever heard.

  • castaic, CA

    I loved this book. So well written about such an interesting time in Afrika and Beryl who was such a strong independent woman. I love Karen Blixen and it was fun to see her from a different view.

  • Troy, IL

    Exciting life of a remarkable woman. Beryl, at five, practically raises herself when her mother leaves Africa. She grows up strong & independent but struggles with relationships throughout life.

  • Centreville, VA

    Historical fiction about Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic by herself. She was a strong, independent, fascinating person. Her life made me want to be more adventurous.

  • San Antonio, TX

    I love this time period and especially the life she lived in Africa. Loved the fiction of a real person and pretending to be inside her life. Strong book, wonderful story, intriguing heroine.

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