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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