Book Reviews

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain


“I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know-that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it. These I learned at once. But most things came harder.”

-Beryl Marham, West with the Night

I wanted to include the quote used in the beginning of this story because I feel it sums up nicely who Beryl Markham was and what the underlining theme was throughout this book.

Markham was quite the woman. She was obstinate to norms, hungry for adventure, self-absorbed, vulnerable and yet guarded.

I read in a review that this book “does not pass the Bechdel test” and had to look it up. According to Wikipedia, “The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.” While the review was excellent, I wish I didn’t read it because then I started seeing proof throughout the book. And then I reminded myself that this was early 1900s Africa, before Kenya was Kenya, and women were trying to make their mark among a sea of men. Some wanted a relationship and to settle down and some wanted more. A lot more. It pained me that many women had to depend on men for income and a place in society, but that was the time and instead, focused on her tenacity and humanness. Otherwise I would’ve chucked the book several times.

Yes, Markham and Blixen’s pining over Denys Finch Hatton got on my nerves at times (he must have been quite the specimen) but I think aside from the “will he choose me?” dialogue, Markham’s fictionalized story is a great testament to fight for what you want. Women CAN be many sides: romantic, soft and affectionate while being tough as hell, playing with boys in the bush, wearing pants and getting dirty. She was the first licensed female horse trainer of her time AND the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. Her friendship with Kibii, a little boy from one of the the Kipsigis families nearby, was my favorite part of the entire book.

Historical Fiction is a tough one for me because I start looking up everything about the person and wonder how much is fact and how much is fiction. But when it works, it sweeps me off my feet to another time and another place, which is what I desperately needed in my reading last month. Think I’ll go and rewatch Out Of Africa. Her “cameo” in the movie is named Felicity and a very small part.

My library copy of Circling the Sun by Paula McLain is 384 pages and published by Ballantine Books. I listened to this book mostly on audio and the narrator, Katharine McEwan, was wonderful.


5 thoughts on “Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

  1. The Bechdel test angle is interesting…I had never heard of that before now and I considered Beryl a trailblazer for her time in focusing on career and her dreams…NOT men. But, now that you mention it, I guess she never really talked to other women about that, did she? Most of those interactions were with men. And, yes, the whole thing with Denys did get tedious after awhile.

  2. Sarah, I hadn’t heard of it either and guess I might be *spoiling* the story for other readers, now. :0 I really enjoyed the book and agree with you that she was a trailblazer for that time. I think she represents many women who want the career and companionship. Nothing wrong with that!

  3. Now I will be thinking about the Bechdel test in any book I read. 🙂
    It doesn’t really bother me, though. Men can be an interesting topic of conversation. It might not have been as fun to read about them talking about horses or airplanes, unless you have a particular interest in them. But other people often make for interesting conversation.
    I like that quote!

  4. The thing about the Bechdel test is that it forces an artificial construct on narratives. Many authors write because they want to tell very particular stories, not to create or change societal norms. and you’re correct: in writing about a place and time where one woman may A) have no one to talk with except men, or B) discuss mostly domestic issues with other women, because those were most pressing, why create an artificial environment?

    That said, my mother recommended Beryl Markham’s autobiography when I said I wanted to read this. She’s read both and preferred the real story. I’ll probably read them both, myself.

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