Circling The Sun by Paula McLain

Circling The SunYou can have a life of drama, scandal, and excitement.

Or, you can have a life of safety, comfort, and peace.

But, I doubt very much that you can have both.

Every time I chastised myself for being monotonous in comparison to Beryl Markham, I realized that she paid dearly for her life of adventure. Hers was not the life of a comforting childhood, growing up within a secure family unit, then finding a loving husband of her own. Instead, her mother left Beryl and her father in Africa when she went back to England with Beryl’s brother, Dickie. And so Beryl’s life of strong independence, embellished with a wild side, began at four years of age.

She was allowed exploration with the animals and freedom of dress, for she had no mother to correct her behavior into proper, ladylike straits. Instead of learning to crook a finger when holding a teacup, she learned to tighten her legs around the belly of a horse. She became daring and bold and brave. Beryl Markham was not a woman to be contained, and as I read, I admired her sense of adventure which brought her fame and glamor along with notoriety and pain.

Having grown up with a father whose business was horses, it is not surprising that Beryl Clutterbuck trained horses and raced them. She married Jock Purves at only seventeen years of age, and it is no wonder that their marriage could not be sustained. For really, the only man that Beryl truly loved was Denys Finch Hatton, a man already involved with Baroness Karen Blixen, and far too committed to his own freedom to be of much support to any woman.

It’s interesting that the film Out of Africa leaves Beryl Markham out of the story altogether, but Paula McLain reveals a more complete  picture of that complicated love story. Apparently, Beryl loved Denys with all her heart just as Karen did, and while Denys was committed to her as much as he could allow himself to be, he found room in his life to fit Beryl in around the edges.

They seemed of a similar spirit; undaunted by other’s opinions, or constrained by a conventional lifestyle, they sought adventure even when it meant danger. Safaris, horses, aero planes…these were things to be conquered, if not necessary elements to make one’s life richer.

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After finishing the book last evening, I searched amongst my shelves until I found Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Karen Blixen) and West With The Night by Beryl Markham. (Of which Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book…she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer….it really is a bloody wonderful book.”) These are the books that Paula McLain makes me want to reread.

Circling the Sun has brought Beryl Markham to life and made Africa such a vibrant place you can see why those who loved it had to reside there.  Just as The Paris Wife, this is historical fiction of remarkable power. It is the very reason one picks up anything written by Paula McLain.

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31 thoughts on “Circling The Sun by Paula McLain”

  1. M, wow! You make me want to stop what I’m doing at this moment and pick up McLain’s novel. I’m so happy I was able to get a copy of it now, because it sounds like it is going to be such a worthwhile read. Of course, after reading that quote by Hemingway, I now need to read Markham’s book as well. I love when a book inspires one to read more books – those are usually the best reads.

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    1. If only there was time to read (and reread!) all that we long for! I’m finishing up the IFFP short list, then there’s the Little, Big read-along I’m hosting in May, but perhaps this summer I’ll find time to revisit Beryl’s life in rereading West With The Night. I’ve never read Out of Africa, though I own the book, I’ve only seen the film. Which I want to see again, too. I hope you get to these things as well! You’ll enjoy Circling The Sun, I’m sure of it.

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    1. Circling the Sun will be a much faster read than West With The Night, at least if you’re like me. I hung on to Beryl’s every word, which I did with Paula McLain as well, but the story in Circling The Sun swept me up much faster than Beryl. I think West with The Night is a book to be savored slowly, much like Antoine St. Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars.

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  2. Thanks for this glowing review, Bellezza! I’ve read The Paris Wife and liked it. I love Out of Africa too (the movie, haven’t read the book), but this one Circling the Sun I must get hold of, and maybe even Beryl Markham’s writing since even Hemingway had so highly valued her.

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    1. Thanks for reading the review, dear Arti! The Paris Wife was quite good, I thought, and Circling the Sun is much like it in the way that McLain brings the characters to life. I think she is very fair, too, in her portrayal of them (at least from what I can tell from history’s records). She doesn’t judge, and I like that. As for West With The Night, that is a must read for us bibliophiles.

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    1. I have seen Out of Africa so many times, and loved it each occasion. The last time I saw it I downloaded the soundtrack, too. There’s just something about the mood, about the love story, that is so piercing to me. Not to mention the vast, beautiful space in Africa.

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    1. I had to read this, as you can see it won’t be released until this summer, but I just needed something based on fact…something with a story that would sweep me up. McLain does just that, as she did in The Paris Wife. I think you’ll like it too, Ally. xo

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  3. I read West With The Night a number of years ago and loved it. I’ll be reading this one at some point. I am not an adventurous person myself at all – I just like reading about women who are. LOL

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    1. West With The Night was absolutely beautifully written, but it took some effort the last time I read it. It wasn’t like sitting down and mindlessly getting caught up in a story; I really focused on Beryl’s every word. As for adventurous, me neither! In fact, I think I become more cautious the older I become. That is one reason this kind of book is so thrilling; one can hardly imagine living life so on the edge…so daring, especially for her time period, but even for today, I think. Except, Beryl pays for it emotionally, whereas I tend to choose a life of emotional safety. I’ve had enough danger in my thirties to last me quite a while.

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  4. Bellezza (I noticed a salon yesterday that featured your “name”), I haven’t read anything by Paula McLain yet, but perhaps I’ll start with Circling the Sun as this sounds like a great book. Wonderful review!

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    1. I wonder what it is that you saw…perhaps for the Little, Big read along? At any rate, I have enjoyed The Paris Wife and Circling The Sun so much. Both books have really brought the women to life.

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  5. Oh I must read this. I read West With The Night a few years ago. Although I wasn’t keen on Markham’s writing style I’m very interested in her life. She actually fought off a lion!

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    1. I know; there is something about Markham’s style which struck me as a bit tedious. At any rate, her life was an interesting one. Imagine being an equestrienne, aviator, and writer! (Not to mention who knows how many men’s mistress?)

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  6. How fascinating – I’ve been meaning to read West with the Night since I finished the biography of Karen Blixen a few months ago. Both fascinating women.

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    1. Oh, I’d be interested in Karen Blixen’s story. All I know of her is from what I’ve seen in the film Out of Africa, and McLain’s portrayal of her here. I’ve been meaning to read Out of Africa for quite some time!

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  7. I loved The Paris Wife and wondered if I’d like this as much. I think I’ll listen to it (as I did TPW). Thanks for your thoughts on it!

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    1. I enjoyed this every bit as much as The Paris Wife. I so admire McLain’s ability to make the women come to life! She has captured Beryl’s life so very well, and as I said, even makes me want to read more about it.

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  8. I could not keep with the books you are read and finished reading.Circling the Sun sounds interesting.West With The Night & Out of Africa are 2 books I can read again.

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  9. Right after I fell in love with Isak Dinesen’s writing I ran across West with the Night. It has been many years and I don’t remember details but do remember how much I enjoyed the book. I have thought over the years that I would like to read it again but I think I will start with Circling the Sun first and see if it brings forth any memories from 25 or 30 years ago. Thanks for reminding me once again of the very interesting Beryl Markham

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    1. Circling the Sun was a much quicker read for me compared to West With The Night. The writing styles are, of course, very different, and McLain’s book has a story and action which was fast moving for me. With Beryl’s book, I had to pause more often to reflect on what she was saying. She was indeed a very interesting, very brave and daring woman.

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  10. Guess what… I found a bio on Beryl Markham in a bookstore today: Straight on till Morning by Mary S. Lovell, at a discount price too. So I bought that only copy. Can’t find her own books though.

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    1. Oh, I want to read Straight On Til Morning! You may have to order West With the Night; your bookstore sounds a bit like mine in that it lacks most of what you’re looking for. 😉

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  11. “West With the Night” always was by my side when I started sailing. Though a boat isn’t an airplane, the process of learning was much the same, and there is a wonderful long paragraph I’ve kept nearby forever, because it so beautifully describes the experience of leaving land. It’s a little long to leave here, but perhaps I’ll turn it into an essay — for the lessons about the learning process apply to us all.

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    1. Linda, I’m so glad to hear from you! I hope you do write that piece on the “wonderful paragraph” because you have me curious about the lesson, but also because your writing is always filled with insight. I’m already intrigued about sailing and flying being similar because of leaving land.

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