Circling the Sun - Paula McClain


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This story has a canvas as broad as the plains of Africa and with as many characters as there are species of animals in Africa.  It would make a great "novela" if they still show those on Spanish TV or a mini-series.

I listened to this book almost entirely on CD and also skimmed the eBook.  The audio was nice because there are some words that are foreign.  I was surprised to hear "Gervase" pronounced as "Jarvis".  "Lakwet" was pronounced as "lock wait".  When I started listening to this audio book I thought it was about Amelia Earhart.  After a while I learned the main character's name was Beryl Clutterbuck.  So I thought it was all fiction.  I thought maybe Beryl Clutterbuck had been named after Beryl Markham who had a quote at the beginning of the book.  Turns out she was a real woman who eventually married Mr. Markham.  The source of the other quote at the front also winds up being a character in the novel.  Turns out Beryl Clutterbuck Markham was a real historic figure.  Beryl Markham wrote a memoir and Karen Blixen did too although she wrote under a pseudonym.  You probably recognize "Out of Africa" by Isak Dinesen.

The prologue is about a woman flying and then the rest of the book seems to be about horses.  If not for the Prologue, I would have thought the whole book was about horses.  At the half way point I hadn't heard another word about flying and began to wonder when we ever would.  Several times there is a mention of a ledger that keeps the geneology of the horses.  It reminded me of the Newbery book I read King of the Wind.

On a scale of 1 - 5:

Sex:  4

Religion:  2

Gruesome:  1

Suspense:  3

Morality:  2

Sex - Details about Beryl's activities with a "sponsor" (p. 222-223).  Marital relations (or lack there of, perhaps somebody needed a little blue pill), And then there are the affairs! (p. 126)

Religion - I don't recall anyone going to church or even mentioning it.

Gruesome - Even the lion attack was not gruesome.

Suspense - Thanks to the Prologue I was intrigued and kept reading to find out when the flying would happen.  I also got hooked in by one of the love stories but nothing was edge-of-my-seat suspense.

Morality - A woman has an abortion without consulting the father.  A woman doesn't enter a marriage because, even though it would have provided financial security, she wasn't in love with him and it "didn't feel right". (p. 223)  In this novel it seems everyone is having an affair with someone and it is portrayed as the way of life in Africa.  Ginger has an affair with Ben who was married to Cockey who had an affair with Bror who was married to Karen/Tania who had an affair with Denys who also had a relationship with Beryl who was married to Jock.

I am a hopeless romantic.  Often times I felt I could identify with Beryl, the main character, even though she was obviously not a hopeless romantic.  I think the most romantic part of the whole book was when Denys acknowledged that they had not spent the six days together like they had planned to. (p. 330)  For all Beryl's doubts and waffling about Denys, it melted my heart to know that he hadn't overlooked the change in plans and would own up to it.

On p. 234 she meets the Carsdale-Lucks and I thought maybe they would finally get her into flying.  
On p. 237 she sees someone on the side of the road with a broken-down car.  I wondered if it was Denys or the person who would start her into flying.  It was indeed Tom Campbell Black, who ultimately started teaching her to fly, but not for many more pages.  About 3/4 through I was still waiting to get to the flying and I became slightly obsessed with reading to get to Beryl and Denys together.  But then she married someone else and I was slightly disappointed but still more hooked than I had been.  Even after she has a baby and another divorce she still doesn't get into flying.  Then when she finally did start flying, and after having read the Prologue, then I worried that her flight would end in tragedy before she was reunited with Denys.

Almost as frustrating as when the flying would happen were the characters who constantly changed their names.  A Danish woman named Karen was sometimes called Tania by those closest to her.  Her husband was Bror Blixen who was known as "Blix" but sometimes someone called him by his given name, Bror.  Kibii grows up and takes on a manly name of Ruta.  When I thought it was a fiction book it was especially frustrating because it seemed the author was doing it on purpose.  Now that I know it is historical fiction I understand that these were real names but still, for consistency, the author could have chosen just one name to call them.

Overall it was a fun book.  On p. 277 there was a tale about a guy who was going out on safari and told the guy to "turn the lorry round" because he "had to see about a girl".  It reminded me of Good Will Hunting.  Oddly Beryl asks the guy if he read that line in a book.  As if she had heard it somewhere too.  Obviously Good Will Hunting came much after that time in Beryl's life.  But I wonder if the GWH author read Beryl's book.

Discussion Questions

At the end of the Prologue, Beryl thought she was going to crash and die.  Kenya was on her mind.  Where will you think of as home in your last moments?

Beryl's father moved from England to Africa for a new start based on a paper flyer offering "Cheap imperial land, and an idea [that] had latched on to him that wouldn't let go."  What would entice you to start over?  
How far would you relocate for cheap land?  (p. 64)  Tell about a time when an idea latched on to you.  
Was it successful?

Why did Beryl's mother take only her brother and not Beryl?

At what point in your growing up did "the clouds [fall] away in an instant, leaving the hard facts."?  
When did you stop being naive and start seeing the world as it was? (p. 49)

At her coming out party (p. 67) Beryl and Jock danced and he commented about marrying her and said, "You are wearing a white dress."  Since her debut frock was the color of egg custard was this a veiled question about her virginity?  Or foreshadowing?  Or just establishing what was important to Jock?

Beryl reviewed all her options when her father said he was moving and she chose Jock.  Discuss her options and ultimate choice.  What would you have chosen for her?  For your daughter? (p. 80)

It seems that Beryl and Jock almost had an arranged marriage.  Discuss the pros and cons of arrangements.  
Is there a history in your family tree?  How did it work?  Did you try to be different in your marriage than your parents were?  How did it work?

It seems that Beryl's laughter in the honeymoon bed set the sexual tone for the whole marriage.  
Was it nervous laughter?  Was she wrong to laugh?  Isn't there a place for laughter in the bedroom?

On the boat during the honeymoon Beryl reported nausea. (p. 90)  And on p. 97 a few monthls later when she met Dos for tea she broke down in tears.  Did you think she was pregnant?  At what other times in the book did you expect her to be pregnant?

When Beryl wrote to Dos she made everything sound rosy.  She thought about telling how miserable she really was but wondered, "what would it change anyway"?  Should she have shared her true feelings?  Would it have helped?

Beryl says Jock's farm had nearly the same views as her home in Green Hills "but [she] couldn't quite convince [her]self [she] belonged there." (p. 94) Tell of a time when you felt like you were living in an alternate reality.

Jock always worried about how things would look.  Beryl thought things should look honest. (p. 102)  
Discuss both sides of subscribing to "how things look".

Beryl was the first woman horse trainer.  (p. 114)  Tell of a time when you broke stereotypes.

Discuss Beryl's response to her mother's return. (p. 153)  How would you feel?  Did Beryl respond appropriately.

Karen says, "We're all of us afraid of many things, but if you make yourself smaller or let your fear confine you, then you really aren't your own person at all - are you?  The real question is whether or not you will risk what it takes to be happy." (p. 164) Do you agree?

In Chapter 26 Beryl learns her brother had been in Kenya for many years and nobody had told her. (p. 166)  Has your family or close friend ever been so close and not contacted you?  How did you feel when you found out?  Or have you been the one to keep quiet?  For what reason?

On p. 169 Beryl commented that she could sleep anywhere and then the story proceeds with the account of two nights of interrupted sleep (one because of rain and one because of Denys and Karen).  Was it an odd coincidence, poor editing or intentional foreshadowing?  A similar thing occurs on p. 256 when she had just said the horse was sure-footed and then it slips on a bridge.

Beryl described her mother as pitiful. (p. 171)  "How dreadful it would be if everything toppled you and you folded in."  Did you ever know anybody so fragile?  How did you handle it?

When Berkeley was discussing the death of his father (p. 183) he said, "...I've developed a theory that only the vanished truly leave their mark.  And I still don't feel I've sorted it out.  Maybe we never do survive our families."  Do you agree with Berkeley? Compare and Contrast with Antigone who says we owe a longer allegiance to the dead.

Have you ever taken a definitive course of action without thinking it all the way through?  How did it work out?  What did you learn?  What do you do differently because of that experience? (ref. 1st paragraph p. 195 - Ch. 31)

After her first night with Denys (p. 195) Beryl thought, "This is the love that will change my life." and "I don't belong to myself any more."  Was she correct?

Tell about a time when you were awakened after sleeping through life. (ref. p. 196)

At what point did Karen learn about Beryl and Denys?

Karen said she sometimes had a fantasy to "give up everything and move away to China or Marseilles...of beginning again". (p. 198)  Did you ever entertain such a fantasy?  Beryl said she never would but Karen said she might if she were "hurting enough".  Did you suspect Karen of telling Jock and eventually driving Beryl away?

Did Beryl eventually understand why Jock worried so much about what other people thought?  
"It was painful how much respect seemed to matter now that my life was under glass." (p. 204)  
Even after the birth of Gervase, when there was gossip about the princes she said, 
"Let them, then.  I just don't care any more." (p. 320)

When she is finally pregnant (p. 208) the doctor thought it was constipation.  Did you know what it was?

Should Beryl have told Denys about the pregnancy?  (ref. beginning Ch. 34, p. 212)  
How would it have worked out?

Many people highlight the last paragraph on p. 235, "How close people could be to us when they had gone as far away as possible, to the edges of the map.  How unforgettable."  How do you feel about this thought?

When Melton Pie got out of the stable because of a rusty hinge was it really Beryl's fault? (p. 238)  
Why was there no mention of the stable boy, ranch hand or caretaker?  

When Beryl heard footsteps outside her hut (p. 239), who did you think it was?  Did you expect this reunion?  Did you think there was anything more than friendship between them?

It seemed like Berkeley was more dear to here than Delamere even though she had known the Delamere family since she was a girl and Berkeley was just someone she met along the way (and was never romantically involved with).  How did she get so fond of Berkeley?  (p. 246)

At the bottom of p. 253 she says she is unable to think about Karen or she wouldn't be able to have Denys.  Discuss the contradiction that she will sleep in a tent and be the first female horse trainer but won't be so ruthless when it comes to love.  Instead she worries about a lady whom she realizes she has probably already lost her friendship.

After Beryl woke up from her tonsillectomy she saw Denys. (p. 272)  Was it really him or a drug-induced vision?  It seems Ginger had sent Denys.  What did she know of Beryl and Denys?  On p. 274 it seems that Beryl did not tell her about Denys, so who did?

In Chapter 47 she says she had learned, "painfully" that she had to be honest in her second marriage.  How did she learn this?  Other than the affair, what did she keep from Jock?

Discuss the growth of Beryl's character.  In particular, in reference to her reflections on Mansfield at the bottom of p. 284:  "Mansfield was a good man.  I respected and admired him through and through, and if the love I felt for him wasn't exactly the kind that could send me over the top of  mountain on horseback in the middle of the night, it was quietly solid.  He stayed by my side."

At the beginning of Chapter 49 Beryl has the idea to bring her father into the business at their farm.  
Did you think she would ever see her father again?  Doesn't it seem like she could have communicated with him previously?  When Mansfield and Emma bonded over gardening did it seem strange to you?  
Did you suspect anything deeper?

It seems like Mansfield and Beryl, who married after knowing each other for four months, might not have discussed whether they wanted children. (p. 302)    Beryl said she, "still cared for Mansfield, but [she] also felt as if [she'd] boarded a train ment for one place that was now irrevocably going somewhere else entirely."  
What are the essential things to discuss before marriage?

After the princes visited Melela, Mansfield told Beryl that she seemed "to have no idea of how [she was] prompting gossip." (p. 308)  Was she just innocent or oblivious in this regard?  Do you know anyone like that?

At the end of Chapter 51 Beryl agrees to go to England because she realizes that if the marriage fell apart she'd be a single mother and might lose her home.  What emotions motivated her choice?

After the royal dinner Beryl looks at Mansfield in one doorway and Denys in the other and was "struck by the thought that fate might have lined things up differently.  In some other time, or on another plane..." (p. 311)  Do you think that if she had been officially with Denys they would have all still been there at that time and place?

Did Mansfield use Beryl just to get an heir? (ref. p. 322)

Beryl said, "We can only go to the limits of ourselves - I've learned that if nothing else.  Anything more and we give too much away.  Then we're not good for anyone." (p. 329)  Some people would say that you have to give your whole self away or put all of your heart into something or it won't be good.  Debate the different views.

Denys advised Beryl, "Sometimes when you're hurting, it helps to throw yourself at something that will take your weight." (p. 353)  Is this sage advice?  Have you ever tried it?

What does the last line of Chapter 58 symbolize?

Discuss Beryl's thought at the end of Chapter 59, "The thorn trees had no grief or fear.  The constellations didn't fight or hold themselves back, nor did the translucent hook of the moon.  Everything was momentary and endless.  This time with Denys would fade, and it would last for ever."

As Karen is preparing to leave Kenya she experiences some dreams that she feels are significant. (p. 341)  Discuss the role of dreams in major life changes.  Karen also says she "wouldn't take a single moment back". (p. 342)  It's like an answer to the un-asked proverbial question:  Knowing what you know now, what would you change about your life.  Do you stand with Karen or would you make changes?

Beryl traveled on horseback through the night and rain to get to Denys but because someone else had a bad feeling she wouldn't go flying with him.  She said she trusted Tom but didn't she also trust Denys?  Should they have died together?  (ref. Ch. 61)  Why had he invited Karen on the trip before he had invited Beryl?

Why were the planes referred to as "moths"?  Does this tie it to the title since moths are attracted to light and the sun is a light.

At the end of Chapter 61 Beryl says "three souls perished".  Is that pilot talk since it is common in the present day to refer to passengers as souls?  Later she says she lost her heart. (ref. p. 347)  Why not her soul too?  How are they different when it comes to a love this deep?

At Deny's funeral Beryl picks up some of the dirt but then lets it go. (ref. p. 347)  Do your ancestors have any traditions regarding dirt and funerals?

Page 347 seems to offer an explanation of the title.  How do you feel about the symbolism?

"There are things we find only at our lowest depths.  The idea of wings and then wings themselves."  (p. 353)  Tell of a time when you found wings.


DISCREPANCIES - This book had so many inconsistencies i felt like I could make a whole section of them:

The author does not do a good job describing their accommodations.  On pg. 19 Beryl talks about a leopard creeping into her hut and attacking her dog, Buller.  On pg. 21 she and her dad are talking about acquiring horses and farm equipment.  Doesn't it seem like they should have secured their residence first?  Yet on pg. 23 we read that the Delameres have a comparable ranch and "D hadn't made many improvements to their own living quarters, two large mud rondavels with beaten-earth flooring...Still, Lady D had filled the place with nice things that had been in her family for hundreds of years..."  Then on pg. 28 when Mrs. Orchardson arrives she says, "...the place was solid, and a vast improvement from the hut it once was."

On pg. 38 Beryl was attacked by a lion and got a scar on her thigh.  But earlier, on pg. 24, Lady D asked her, "Where'd you get that fierce looking scar?"  Beryl looked at the long, rippled wound that went halfway up [her] thigh." and said she got it "Wrestling totos."  Was it out of sequence or foreshadowing?

Pg. 158 Beryl's mother stayed in a guesthouse of Karen's.  "There hasn't been anyone in it for so long."  The first night they stayed there the roof leaked ridiculously.  Yet someone had gone in to open up and tidy up before the guest's arrival.  Wouldn't they have noticed water damage from previous leaks/rain storms?  And much later when Denys and Beryl return the roof is still leaking.  Why was it never fixed?

On pg. 239 Beryl said she wouldn't get a piece of the winnings but at D's she was getting a part of the winnings.  Was D generous or was the change necessary for plot or poor editing?

Around pg. 244 there are three references to Teddy Roosevelt in a (comparatively) short time.  
It seemed as if the author got a late start at the knowledge or the process of inserting historical references.

Several times Beryl assumed that Denys would think poorly of her.  On pg. 204 she thought she'd probably already lost his respect.  Why would she have?  On pg. 244 she said "There was already too much history between [them]...".  It sees like what she thought was history he could chalk up to a one-night stand.  On pg. 245 she wondered if she and Denys could "be friends again after all that had happened".  Again - one night, why not friends?  Or, why not more than friends?  On pg. 249, after Berkeley's funeral, Denys invites her back to his house and she was "full of ... lingering hurt [and] disappointment".  When did he hurt her?  Why was she disappointed?  On pg. 250 she was "haunted by the last time [they] were together".  What was haunting about it?  Finally on pg. 251 she felt like I expected when she said, "The whole roof could have come down on our heads for all I cared.  I was in Denys' arms.  I would happily have drowned."  On pg. 284 she "wanted to believe it was jealousy that kept him silent and absent" from her wedding to Mansfield.  If she loved him, why would she want him to be jealous?  On pg. 306 she mentions that she hadn't seen Denys in months.  Why would she have?

On pg. 253 she has been winning and was finally able to start paying Ruta but it never says if she paid the debt for the rusty hinge.

When Karen finally divorces Blix and he is able to be with Cockie, Beryl asks her if it was "worth everything [she] went through to win him" and Cockie is unsure saying it doesn't matter because she couldn't have done anything different since he is her heart. (pg. 329)  That seems like a contradictory answer.  Wouldn't having your heart be worth anything?

On pg. 349 Tom and Beryl are flying and "only when we needed fuel did we make our way back to Melela".  To get fuel where, I wondered.  Surely they didn't keep a tank of airplane fuel on the farm.

On pg. 353 I felt like I needed a geography lesson.  It said her plan was to stop in Sydney then go on "south by southwest over land...New Brunswick and the tip of Maine, and finally to New York."  She is "fifty miles from land" then on pg. 354 she crashes "three hundred yards from the water's edge, nowhere near New York" but then says she has "done it".  By "it" I assume she means the first trans-Atlantic flight from east to west by a woman.  But if she's nowhere near New York than what did she do?


Theme Ideas

Serve Pepper Flecked Beef Tournedos, Blanched Asparagus Spears and deep stained Claret like Beryl had when she accepted the challenge to cross the Atlantic from east to west solo.

Serve liquorice allsorts and pear drops like Beryl's mother promised to send her. (p. 12)

Group Art Project:  On pg. 18 Beryl says Africa was "The one place in the world I'd been made for."  What place are you made for?  Write a poem, "I Am Made for ..." and then paint around it.

Serve "candied ginger, devilled eggs, and chilled juices" (p. 41) like Mrs. Elkington brought Beryl on a bamboo tray while she was recovering from the lion attack.

Decorate with yellow flowers and peppermint sticks (for butterflies) like Beryl remembered on pg. 55.  Or make bookmarks for your guests with yellow flowers and red and white striped butterflies.

Serve "Tommie steak with buttons of potatoes and pearled onions" "under buttery gravy" and champagne like at Beryl's party. (p. 85)

Serve "tea and sandwiches" (p. 96) like when Beryl met Dos a few months after marrying Jock.

Serve "thick gazelle chops ... cooked over an open fire, preserved peaches in syrup, and an almond scented blancmange custard" like the dinner D served when Beryl passed her trainer's exam.  

Serve champagne because Berkeley says, "it is absolutely compulsory" (p. 191) in Africa/Kenya.

Serve lightly breaded chicken in cream sauce, roasted vegetables with herbs, a corn pudding studded with mushrooms and thyme , ripe cheese and oranges" like Karen served on p. 163.

Serve "scented tomato water, blanched tiny lettuces, and turbot in a hollandaise" like Karen served for dinner on p. 175.

Give a copy of "Leaves of Grass" to each guest.

Decorate with candles and flowers everywhere and use your most beautiful china like Karen did on p. 186.

Serve "a suckling pig ... roasted over smoked wood...cranberry relish and roasted chestnuts and Yorkshire pudding" like at Christmas dinner. (p. 191)

Serve champagne and caviar like at the New Year's party. (p. 196)

Served "tinned chestnuts and sugared almonds" like Beryl saw in the window when she went to London. (p. 205)

Serve "choucroute garnie with sprigs of fresh rosemary and spaghetti with mussels and black squid ink" like Beryl and Mansfield ate on their honeymoon. (p. 284)

Serve passion fruit margaritas in honor of the passion fruit that "covered the back fence" at Melela. (p. 294)

Serve "ham poached in champagne with tiny jewel-like strawberries and tart, plump pomegranate seeds, a mushroom croustade with truffles and cream...[and] a fat and perfectly browned rum baba" like Karen served for the royal dinner before the safari. (p. 310)

Play telephone like Beryl mentioned on p. 322.

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