Circling the Sun by Paula McLain


On any given day, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. You can spill coffee on your bare foot in the morning, or you can rear-end someone on your way to work. You can give your job everything you have but be let go without warning for reasons outside your (and maybe your supervisor’s) control. You can enjoy a lovely midsummer dinner with your partner only to have your heart broken when they tell you they don’t love you anymore. A family member that has been crucial to your life since the day you were born can suddenly betray and abandon you, seemingly without a care. Your universe can completely upend on a sunny afternoon when you get the call that your mother, or brother, or best friend, or any loved one has been taken from this world. On any given day, anything and everything can go wrong; but it’s what you do with this fact that determines the course of your life.

Beryl Markham learned this at a young age. Abandoned by her mother at the age of four, then catapulted into an unhealthy marriage at sixteen, Beryl was a seemingly modern woman born well before her time and forced to grow up way too soon. Born in England, her family moved to Kenya when she was very young. After her mother fled back to England, she was raised by both her father and the natives that lived on his estate. She was an unconventional wild child, and as an adult she never really found a way to fit into the mold of society. She made mistakes and muddled through them the hard way, yet she always seemed to make it through with her head up. She was an admirable woman; she built a career as a successful horse trainer, she learned to fly, she became the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic from east to west, and most importantly, she lived and loved on her own terms, regardless of the cost.

It sort of amazes me that Beryl Markham was a real person. When I first heard of Circling the Sun, I don’t think I realized that the characters in the novel were actual people, and that they really did a lot of what was detailed in the book. Then, once I bought the book, I think I was confused at first as to how much was real and how much was fiction. But as I started reading, those questions faded away as I became wrapped up in the story. Beryl was a fascinating character, real-life or not. Once I finished the book and read the author’s note, I did a little bit of research on the real Beryl Markham, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that Circling the Sun truly mirrored her life (at least in the big ways). I was also very excited to learn that Beryl had written a memoir, and I’ve added that to my reading list along with Out of Africa, written by Beryl’s acquaintance Karen Blixen under a pen name. It might be a while before I make it to those books, but it will be worth it to read the true story of her life.

Simply put, Circling the Sun just really clicked with me. It’s got all the makings of a novel that I would enjoy: it’s historical fiction, there’s a romance plot, the main character is an admirable heroine, and there’s a solid bit of adventure. This book was right up my alley and I definitely enjoyed it. It was just so easy for me to get wrapped up in the story; I’m surprised at myself for waiting so long to read it. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a while; I originally bought it last fall before my trip to Munich. I planned on reading it on the flight back to the States, but I was too distracted by movies and games on the plane. Then in Newark airport I was way too annoyed about watching my final flight home being delayed every half hour to really enjoy it, so when I finally made it back to my apartment I put it on the coffee table to “read later.” When it sat there for a month it was moved to the bookshelf, and it’s been there until two weeks ago. I was very proactive in April about putting together my reading list for May, but I had a few delayed and missing packages that left me scrambling when it was time for a new book on May 1st. That day I noticed Circling the Sun on the bookshelf and figured it was time to give it another go. I think I finished it the next day, it was that good.

I’m just very fascinated about Kenya’s history and culture, particularly with how the British colonials were able to live in such a different environment than their home country. And I’m interested in the African wilderness- the geography, the animals, the climate, everything. The traveler in me is itching to go there, but realistically I know that it won’t happen anytime soon. A few years ago I read Love, Life, and Elephants, the memoir by Daphne Sheldrick. Her Kenya was a little bit later than Beryl’s, but when I finished Circling the Sun I found myself studying the pictures in Daphne’s memoir and comparing the maps in both books. It was such an interesting time and place in history, and it produced such amazing people. To me, that’s enough to justify visiting in person.

I really, truly enjoyed Circling the Sun. Considering my interests, I realize that I’m a little bit biased but the story was just so engrossing, and the fact that much of the novel was inspired by the real life of Beryl Markham makes it so much better. I’m still kind of kicking myself for letting it sit so long, but I’m happy I finally read it. The weather has been cool and rainy here, so I’m grateful that I had such a great book to curl up with and lose myself in. Now I just have to cross Beryl’s memoir off my reading list and figure out a way to make it to Africa to see her country for myself!




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