Summary and book reviews of Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun

A Novel

by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2015, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2016, 400 pages

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Book Summary

The extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit.

Paula McLain, author of the phenomenal bestseller The Paris Wife, now returns with her keenly anticipated new novel, transporting readers to colonial Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman—Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, author of the classic memoir Out of Africa.

Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature's delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.

Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who live and love by their own set of rules. But it's the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl's truest self and her fate: to fly.

Set against the majestic landscape of early-twentieth-century Africa, McLain's powerful tale reveals the extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit.

Excerpt
Circling the Sun

Before Kenya was Kenya, when it was millions of years old and yet still somehow new, the name belonged only to our most magnificent mountain. You could see it from our farm in Njoro, in the British East African Protectorate—hard edged at the far end of a stretching golden plain, its crown glazed with ice that never completely melted. Behind us, the Mau Forest was blue with strings of mist. Before us, the Rongai Valley sloped down and away, bordered on one side by the strange, high Menengai Crater, which the natives called the Mountain of God, and on the other by the distant Aberdare Range, rounded blue-grey hills that went smoky and purple at dusk before dissolving into the night sky.

When we first arrived, in 1904, the farm wasn't anything but fifteen hundred acres of untouched bush and three weather-beaten huts.

"This?" my mother said, the air around her humming and shimmering as if it were alive. "You sold everything for this?"

"Other farmers are ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. At the beginning of the book, Beryl reflects that her father's farm in Njoro was "the one place in the world I'd been made for." Do you feel this is a fitting way to describe Beryl's relationship with Kenya, too? Did she seem more suited–more made for–life there than the others in her circle? Is there a place in your life that you would describe the same way?

  2. While it is clear he loved his daughter, do you feel Beryl's father was a good parent? Do you think Beryl would have said he was? Did you sympathize with him at any point?

  3. Beryl is forced to be independent from a very young age. How do you think this shaped her personality (for better or for worse)?

  4. After Jock's drunken attack, D fires Beryl and ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about Circling the Sun. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.

After Jock's drunken attack, D fires Beryl. Do you understand his decision? Do you feel it's fair that Beryl was being judged so harshly for the incident?
I agree with Rebecca L. I thought it was as much for Beryl's safety as his own. - jeanniet

Beryl is forced to be independent from a very young age. How do you think this shaped her personality?
Similar to the first summer you come home from college, after a school year of freedom to make your own decisions. Once you have had that independence, to have someone try to determine for you what they think you should do is unbearable. I think ... - barb23703

Beryl says, "Work does more than pay your way... It gives you a reason to go on." Do you think her peers would have been able to comprehend her meaning? What role does work have in your life?
It was a very progressive thought for her day, and a symptom of her fierce independence. I have seen this attitude played out by many women who came of age in the 60's and 70's, as they fought through social barriers and professional barricades. I is... - barb23703

Do you feel Beryl's father was a good parent? Do you think Beryl thought he was?
No, I don't think he was a good parent. He was so busy training horses and trying to make a living that it seems he almost forgot about her. Lady Delamere did remind him that Beryl was a girl and she was running wild. Then her father tried to "tame"... - annar

Do you feel Clutt was a sympathetic character?
somewhat. he was not a good father but perhaps he was unable to do so as a single parent. He did lover his daughter very much however. - julianna

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The writing is flawless – reading this literature is like holding a strand of pearls in your hand – silky smooth and warm .   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. McLain paints an intoxicatingly vivid portrait of colonial Kenya and its privileged inhabitants. Markham's true life was incredibly adventurous, and it's easy for readers to identify with this woman who refused to be pigeonholed by her gender. Readers will enjoy taking in the rich world McLain has created.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Ernest Hemingway, who met Markham on safari two years before her Atlantic crossing, tagged her as 'a high-grade bitch' but proclaimed her 1942 memoir West with the Night 'bloody wonderful.' Readers might even say the same of McLain's sparkling prose and sympathetic reimagining.

Author Blurb Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Leaving Time
Paula McLain cements herself as THE writer of historical fictional memoir with Circling the Sun giving vivid voice to Beryl Markham, a singular, extraordinary woman whose name we all know -- and whose story we don't. In a brilliant move, McLain hardly focuses at all on the trans-Atlantic flight that made the aviator so famous, choosing instead to explore what happened before: Markham's unorthodox childhood in Kenya, a failed marriage, and a star-crossed love affair with Denys Finch Hatton. The result? In McLain's confident hands, Markham crackles to life, and we readers truly understand what made a woman so far ahead of her time believe she had the power to soar

Author Blurb Jojo Moyes
Paula McLain has such a gift for bringing characters to life. I loved discovering the singular Beryl Markham, with all her strengths and passions and complexities, a woman who persistently broke the rules, despite the personal cost. She’s a rebel in her own time, and a heroine for ours.

Reader Reviews

RO

Achieve heights
Beryl Markham was a pioneer feminist. During her life, she reflected the challenges women face in a patriarchal society. Her behaviors of rebellion of the culture of the time led to remarkable adventures in life. She was not successful in all ...   Read More

Irving Presser

CIRCLING THE SUN
In the tradition of Out Of Africa and West With The Night, Paula Mclain has written an outstanding book about Beryl Markham. It is truly a superb book. Many people know the name Amelia Earhart but many do not know the British aviatrix Berry Markham....   Read More

Pam S. (Wellesley, MA)

A breathless adventure
This was one of those books that you can't stop reading. Beryl Markham was an amazing woman whose fierce independence and bravery predated the woman's movement by more than half a century. Her story, as told by Paula McLain, was both poignant and ...   Read More

Carolyn L. (Summerville, SC)

Circling the Sun
I enjoyed this well-written, fictional account of the early life of Beryl Markham. She was certainly a strong, independent woman, a survivor, as she struggled to find happiness in a male-dominated, 1920s Africa. Paula McLain brings Kenya to life, ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

A Glimpse of Beryl Markham

Beryl MarkhamPaula McLain's new historical fiction, Circling the Sun is the story of Beryl Markham, an aviatrix whose incredible flight accomplishments took a back seat to the more famous Amelia Earhart. A number of books have tried to shine the light on this British daredevil who, in many ways, was ahead of her time – Straight on Till Morning by Mary Lovell, The Lives of Beryl Markham by Errol Trzebinski, and Markham's own book, West with the Night (which some say it was ghostwritten, a rumor that McLain says is both ridiculous and insulting) – and McLain's tribute does this too, highlighting the rebellious nature of Markham; her own brand of feminism that speaks both to why she stood out in her time and how she is relatable today.

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