55 reviews

Circling the Sun: A Novel
by Paula McLain

Published: 2015-07-28
Hardcover : 384 pages
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR, BOOKPAGE, AND SHELF AWARENESS  “Paula McLain is considered the new star of historical fiction, and for good reason. Fans of The Paris Wife will be captivated by Circling the Sun, which . . . is both ...

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR, BOOKPAGE, AND SHELF AWARENESS  “Paula McLain is considered the new star of historical fiction, and for good reason. Fans of The Paris Wife will be captivated by Circling the Sun, which . . . is both beautifully written and utterly engrossing.”—Ann Patchett, Country Living

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, who as Isak Dinesen wrote 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 also 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.

Praise for Circling the Sun

“In McLain’s confident hands, Beryl 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.”—Jodi Picoult, author of Leaving Time

“Enchanting . . . a worthy heir to [Isak] Dinesen . . . Like Africa as it’s so gorgeously depicted here, this novel will never let you go.”The Boston Globe

“Famed aviator Beryl Markham is a novelist’s dream. . . . [A] wonderful portrait of a complex woman who lived—defiantly—on her own terms.”People (Book of the Week)

Circling the Sun soars.”Newsday

“Captivating . . . [an] irresistible novel.”—The Seattle Times

“Like its high-flying subject, Circling the Sun is audacious and glamorous and hard not to be drawn in by. Beryl Markham may have married more than once, but she was nobody’s wife.”—Entertainment Weekly

“[An] eloquent evocation of Beryl’s daring life.”O: The Oprah Magazine

“Markham’s life is the stuff of legend. . . . McLain has created a voice that is lush and intricate to evoke a character who is enviably brave and independent.”NPR

“Bold, absorbing fiction.”—New York Daily News

“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.”—Jojo Moyes, author of Me Before You

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of July 2015: Sometimes a reader craves a good, old-fashioned yarn. This much anticipated novel from the author of The Paris Wife is exactly that: an engrossing story of love and adventure in colonial Africa, complete with gorgeous landscape, dissolute British ex-pats, and lots of derring-do with horses, motorcars and airplanes. That it is also the best kind of contemporary historical novel – the kind that teaches you something about the real people and events of the time – is a bonus. At the center of the novel is Beryl Markham (born – you gotta love it – Clutterbuck), the headstrong daughter of a British colonial who grew up more comfortable among the people and animals of her adopted Kenya than in the homes of its landed gentry. When Beryl’s mother leaves the family and her father gives up the farm, she marries (at 16) a gentleman farmer, a drunk too louche to be much of a husband. Like privileged but love-hungry teenage girls past and future, Beryl seeks companionship from her horses, becoming the first and greatest female horse trainer in the region. Along the way, she hobnobs with Kenyan high society, including, but not limited to, Karen Blixen (who authored her own epic story, Out of Africa, under the pen name Isaak Dinesen) and her lover Denys Finch Hatten (who will always be Robert Redford to those of us who watched him play the role in the movie version of Dinesen’s book.) Much bed-hopping and relationship-boundary-pushing ensue, with all the teeth-gnashing and yearning that goes along with it, no matter the era. Those who knew about Markham before reading this book may be surprised by how little there is about her as a pilot. She is, after all, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west, and she wrote her own memoir, 1942’s West with the Night; here, it is only in the book’s frame – a prologue and its final chapter – that we get a glimpse of the way that Beryl will, literally, soar. But McLain doesn’t seem interested in portraying her as a trailblazing feminist with an idea about changing the world; the Beryl Markham here is noteworthy precisely because she is NOT those things so much as a girl who grew up pushing back against conventions that got in her way. “But you’ve never been afraid of anything, have you?” Finch Hatten says to her in their last meeting. “I have, though,” she replies. “I’ve been terrified. . .I just haven’t let that stop me.” -- Sara Nelson


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. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

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?

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?

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

After Jock’s drunken attack, D fires Beryl and sends her away. Do you understand his decision? Despite all the philandering and indulgent behaviors of the community, do you feel it’s fair that Beryl was being judged so harshly for the incident?

How would you describe Beryl and Denys’s relationship? In what ways are they similar souls? How does their first encounter–outside, under the stars at her coming out party–encapsulate the nature of their connection?

Karen and Beryl are two strong, iconoclastic women drawn to the same unobtainable man. Do you understand how Beryl could pursue Denys even though he was involved with Karen? Did you view the friendship between the women as a true one, despite its complications?

Why do you believe the author chose the title Circling the Sun? Does it bring to mind a particular moment from the novel or an aspect of Beryl’s character?

When Beryl is quite young, she reflects that “softness and helplessness got you nothing in this place.” Do you agree with her? Or do you think Beryl placed too much value on strength and independence?

When Beryl becomes a mother herself, she is determined not to act as her own mother did. Do you feel she succeeds? How does motherhood spur her decision to exchange horse training for flying? Could you identify with this choice?
After Paddy the lion attacks Beryl, Bishon Singh says, “Perhaps you were never meant for him.” Do you think that Beryl truly discovered what she was meant for by the end of the novel?

Suggested by Members

Was Beryl Markham ethical?
by [email protected] (see profile) 01/20/18

What affect it has on a child when abandoned by their mother abandons.
Women's Rights in 1920's and Beryl's flight across Atlantic that little was known.
by smokey1 (see profile) 03/22/17

Do we give our kids enough freedom today? How does parenting today compare to Beryl's upbringing?
by Kim_K (see profile) 11/13/16

What did "Circling the Sun" mean?
by wltdodr (see profile) 04/08/16

what role did isolation play in the alternative moral structure of colonial Africa?
How can there be true friendship between woman who are
by kmcjohn (see profile) 01/06/16

How women's rights and lives have changed since the 1920.
How being abandoned by her mother played a pivitol role in her life.
by bcarroll (see profile) 11/10/15

Discuss Beryl and Karen and how they were different and how they were similar.
Compare Clutt, Ruta, Jock, Mansfield, and Denys and discuss what Beryl learned from each of these men
Through out the novel it is mentioned how our past shapes us, how did Beryl's past make her into the woman she became? What events do you think had the most impact on her life?
by ccroft78248 (see profile) 08/22/15

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by Megan B. (see profile) 07/02/19

I found it really slow to start and hard to get into.

by Megan Z. (see profile) 06/28/19

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