Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

I must admit that when I purchased Let the Great World Spin it was due in large part to the hype that still surrounds this book a few years after it won the National Book Award in 2009.  So very many readers have determined this novel to be a literary masterpiece; readers I respect and trust.  So why did I not love my time spent with the story?

In 1974, funambulist Philippe Petit tightrope walked between the North and South Tower of the recently constructed World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan.  His act was brash, brave, illicit, and captivating.  Down below, hundreds, if not thousands, of New Yorkers watched in awe, connected in their amazement of the events taking place high above.  Against this backdrop, McCann takes a handful of these voyeurs, gives us their past, present and future, and weaves their lives in-between, around and, ultimately, together.

Normally, character driven stories, tales of New York City, and books in response to 9/11 hold me captive.  Colum McCann’s tale is wonderfully drawn and beautifully imaged, but something about his writing felt a bit too overwrought.  The potent simplicity of the characters and their connections sometimes seemed to take second place to trivial ponderings and meanderings that I never could find a purpose for other than this man has major talent.

At the same time, McCann had moments of absolute storytelling genius especially in regards to his theme of how the past and future can affect our present.  My favorite scene was when the disillusioned artist couple leaves their by-gone era paintings in the rain and how surprised they are at the subsequent art born out of the effects of present day forces.  This realization after the car wreck serves as a poignant way to send them along their future paths – well done, Mr. McCann.

See how I haven’t managed to really come up with a strong reason why I didn’t love the novel beyond that he writes too beautifully too often?

Let me try again.  If I were on a helicopter looking down at the novel’s full landscape (or perhaps with our daring French acrobat poised on that tightrope), this novel would have been fabulous and would have lived up to all the hype.  As a nuanced, deeply emotive response to 9/11, Let the Great World Spin works superbly.  The idea that these towers will be connecting the lives of New Yorkers and Americans forever is moving and I appreciate that McCann is able to create this tribute without actually mentioning the 2001 events a single time.

Upon a closer viewing, down among the citizens where the novel breathes, something goes wrong for me.  Maybe the characters are too flat and never rise above the role they initially play.  Maybe some of their stories ring false at times or disingenuous.  Some of their eventual paths, namely Lara and Ciaran’s, I detested.  And Tillie – how could Tillie’s story end like that?  She had so much more potential to be a positive force on the world and McCann just abandoned her – forgot her as quickly as found her, choosing to remember instead a rich woman married to a judge.

Despite my lackluster reaction to this novel, I would like to try something else from McCann’s backlist because he’s definitely a talented writer and maybe he’s written something I’ll fall in love with  – something I can review and praise to make up for this let down.  We shall see!

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6 thoughts on “Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

  1. I so appreciated this amazingly honest and intelligently crafted review, but I am sad because I bought this book, and had been hoping that I would love it. Based on your perceptions, I can see that it might annoy me that it was so overwrought and that some stories that were genuinely interesting petered out. When this book first came out, everyone was saying how much they loved it, but then the more tepid reviews started pouring in, and so I let the book languish. It looks like it will remain unread for some time now. Thanks for sharing your candid thoughts with me. It was very enlightening.

    • There are passionate fans of this book who swear it ranks among the best books of all time, but as much as I tried, nothing here made me want to read this book ever again. It had its shiny moments and flickers of great achievement, but just not for me. Ultimately, my favorite characters were abandoned along the way which made me, as the reader, feel abandoned as well.

  2. I didn’t fall in love with one either … and I was expecting too after reading all the rave reviews. For me, the whole coincidence thing bothered me too much (like, are there only 10 people in all of NYC and they all connect together?) Also, I thought he spent way too long on the first story with the priest. He can write but this one fell short for me.

    • I completely agree with you on spending too long with Corrigan – he obviously had a favorite and it affected the development of his other characters.

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