Sarah’s Snippets Book Review: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun, Paula McClainHistorical Fiction
Released July 28, 2015
384 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source:  eGalley provided by the publisher via NetGalley


A pleasant surprise for me! Marked by McLain’s gorgeous writing and one real-life, badass lady flouting convention in all kinds of ways, Circling the Sun would make a great book club selection.

Plot Summary

A fictionalized story of the real Beryl Markham, a British woman raised on a horse farm in 1920’s Kenya, who went on to break the glass ceiling for women in horse training and aviation.

Why I Read It

Fiction based on real people is one of my favorite book categories and I loved McLain’s last novel, The Paris Wife, told from the perspective of Hadley Hemingway (Ernest’s first wife).

Major Themes

Adventurous women, women pushing societal boundaries, slut shaming, marriage, 1920’s British Colonial society

What I Liked

  • I have to admit…I wasn’t as excited by the premise of this book as I was by McLain’s The Paris Wife. But, I ended up being pleasantly surprised!
  • Beryl and her fascinating upbringing, unconventional life choices, and general badass ways are what really drive this story.
  • She grew up as a wild and adventurous tomboy on her father’s Kenyan horse farm. A Baron and Baroness living in a mud hut were her nearest neighbors, she trained to be a tribal warrior with her best childhood friend, and tangled with a friend’s pet lion. She reminded me a bit of Scout Finch in her determination, from a very young age, to hang with the boys.
  • As an adult, Beryl is driven to succeed in traditionally male-dominated fields (horse training and aviation). She accomplished so much as it is, but I wonder how high she could have climbed had she lived at a time when society was more open to career oriented women.
  • I loved McLain’s portrayal of upper class colonial society in Kenya…filled with wealthy characters with urges to be adventurous and, often, to behave badly.
  • McLain’s language flows beautifully, making the story incredibly readable. So much so that, in the beginning, I got nervous that this was going to be one of those “beautiful, but boring” books…but, Beryl’s story makes “boring” an impossibility.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Beryl was known for behaving in ways that sparked the society rumor mill (including lashing out against the constraints of marriage) and, at times, she paid for it with her career. This loop went around and around in the course of the story and eventually began to feel a bit tired.
  • One of my favorite parts of fiction based on real events or people is the “Afterward” that lays out where the author was true to real events and where he/she took liberties for the sake of the story….and, this was missing from Circling the Sun.

A Defining Quote

You can take a cub from the savannah like they have, and raise it like a pet if you like. In a cage, as some do, or running free like Paddy. You can feed it fresh meat so it never learns to hunt and brush its coat so it carries a human smell wherever it goes – but know that what you’ve done is twist something natural into something else. And you can never trust an unnatural thing. You don’t know what it is, and it’s baffled too.

Good for People Who Like…

Fiction based on real people/events, badass women, the horsey world, wealthy people behaving badly.

Other Books You May Like

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

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  1. This is on my list to read in the next few weeks. I love that period in Kenya, so I’m really looking forward to it. I had never heard of Beryl before this book, I wonder how McLain discovered her?

    Posted 7.30.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      I knew nothing about that period in Kenya before reading this and really enjoyed learning about it! And – I also hadn’t heard of Beryl Markham, but I now know she has a published memoir. I read somewhere that Paula McLain ended up more invested in Beryl than in Hadley for The Paris Wife, but don’t know how she discovered her!

      Posted 7.30.15 Reply
  2. Carmen wrote:

    I liked Circling the Sun very much as well, and like you said, there’s lots of rich people behaving badly. Sometimes I was reading and would say, what?! 🙂 You can check my review if you like; I posted it last Monday.

    Posted 7.30.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      It was kind of amazing to me that there was this whole settlement of rich Brits living in Kenya for adventure/escaping boredom in London. I’ll check out your review!

      Posted 7.30.15 Reply
  3. I thought this sounded like a good one when I saw the galley; I’m so glad you went for it and enjoyed it! I love that one of your favorite parts is at the end, when the author describes what liberties they took with the true story, etc.; that was definitely a great part of Under A Dark Summer Sky (about the historical Labor Day Hurricane), because it was so interesting! Great post, Sarah!

    Posted 7.30.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      It might be my very favorite thing about “fiction based on reality”! And, I still have Under A Dark Summer Sky on my TBR…sigh…

      Have a great weekend!

      Posted 7.30.15 Reply
  4. I’m glad it was a good one for you. I’m still debating on it. I’m drawn by the cover and the “badass woman” characterization, so maybe I’ll go ahead and add it to my bought shelf to pull for later.

    Posted 7.30.15 Reply
  5. I loved this book — even more than The Paris Wife, surprisingly! Many years ago, West With the Night was the very first book our book club read. I just reread sections of it — I highly recommend it, especially since it fills in the gaps AND you get to hear Beryl Markham’s voice. Now, I just need to watch Out of Africa again . . .

    Posted 7.31.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      I have it on my list…I had no idea it existed when I read Circling the Sun, but since heard she wrote a memoir. Someone told me that she comes across differently in the memoir?

      Posted 7.31.15 Reply
  6. I liked this but don’t think I liked it as much as you did. I agree with you about the parts about her unconventionality became tired so the book really dragged in the middle for me.

    Posted 8.2.15 Reply
  7. susan wrote:

    I just finished Circling the Sun and loved it. I’m a fan! I think you would really like Beryl’s West With the Night

    Posted 8.6.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      I’m definitely curious about West with the Night!

      Posted 8.7.15 Reply

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