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THE GREAT CIRCLE by Peter Prince

THE GREAT CIRCLE

By Peter Prince

Pub Date: July 1st, 1997
Publisher: Random

British playwright and novelist Prince, in his first fiction to appear here, uses the constricted quarters of a steamship to explore human foibles and fancies, to mixed results. The Laurentia leaves New York in 1865, bound for England, carrying most prominently Olivia and Arthur Crichton--a middle-aged British businessman, married to a much younger woman, who's struggling (without much success) to believe both that his wife truly loves him and that she means to be faithful. Much of the action revolves around the troubled but decent Arthur, who, by virtue of his success and bearing, is deferred to by most of the other passengers. Among the subplots is the effort of a threadbare, would-be industrialist to convince Arthur to invest in factories that he'd like to build in the devastated South. Meanwhile, a variety of voyagers, including the oily Reverend Stibbard, are very likely not what they seem. A cardsharp is cunningly at work. A young, handsome, rather disturbing young American, John Bonney, seems to have some substantial secret to hide, and is increasingly drawn to the lovely, conflicted Olivia. And Charles Stuart, a profoundly gifted black singer, who has recently sung for Abraham Lincoln at the White House, stays mostly in his cabin. He is leaving America to pursue a career in Europe, in hopes that prejudice there will be less oppressive and violent. During the voyage, Arthur is called upon to defend Stuart from the harassments of a boorish southerner. Many matters come to a head when Olivia falls ill with pneumonia, with the ship still many days from port. Prince keeps his many subplots deftly in the air, and doesn't overplay the period background. There's also a nice settling of accounts as the Laurentia draws close to England, and Arthur is a modest, believable hero. Still, there are few revelations here, and the exploration of human behavior is neither particularly ambitious nor startling. A modest work, then, precise, entertaining, but unsurprising.