Book Review :: Let the Great World Spin

Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin may just be the best book I’ve read that I didn’t like. Winner of the National Book Award for fiction last year, McCann’s novel reads more like a collection of short stories about various residents of New York City whose lives are connected by a single event in 1974 – the day a tight-rope walker decided to walk between the World Trade Center towers.

First, what I did like. McCann’s writing is beautiful – poetic at times. Two examples:

“Family is like water – it has a memory of what it once filled, always trying to get back to the original stream.” (pg. 57)

“I gave them all of the truth and none of the honesty.” (pg. 303)

And the writing is dense – it has weight. But what was lacking for me was an emotional connection to the characters – at least most of them. Keeping to the things I liked, I loved the character of Claire. Claire lives in a Park Avenue apartment (she refuses to call it a penthouse) and is married to an esteemed and Jewish judge. They lost their only son in Vietnam, and in a desperate attempt to connect with women who have experienced her level of loss, answers an ad in the paper. She invites her new club – which includes a black woman who happens to be the one Claire is drawn to the most – to her home and frets over ensuring that each one is made welcome and treated well.

The energy that comes from her story is powerful. Her desperation to mourn her son and have him known, her anxious need to be accepted by these women, it is poignant and bittersweet. The tight-rope walker intersects Claire’s story on the morning of the gathering at her house. One of the ladies saw the walk on her way in, and the mothers chide the idea that a son would be so reckless with his life. An insightful story and interesting connection to the common thread.

If only the other stories had been the same for me. Another primary character is Corrigan, an Irish celibate living in poverty in keeping with a religious order. He keeps a minimal apartment with no locks so that the local prostitutes can use it to have a clean place to use the bathroom and freshen up. As his intentions are misunderstood by the girls’ johns, he is frequently beaten up.

From Corrigan’s story, we meet Tillie and Jazzlyn – mother/daughter prostitutes – Corrigan’s brother, the girl Corrigan falls in love with and a couple of hippie artists enjoying a drug binge. But I just didn’t care about these folks – for whatever reason, the emotion wasn’t there.

I think the idea for McCann’s book is really good, and some would obviously say well executed. But for me, it didn’t hit the mark. I read this one for my book club at work, and had it not been for that, this may have been one I decided to put down.

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5 Replies to “Book Review :: Let the Great World Spin

  1. Hmmm. It sounds like a good book, but one that would make me think too much. LOL Most of the time I like a book that just lets me escape & not have to analyze.

  2. Excellent opening line to your review – I have definitely felt that way about books before but could never quite articulate it as well as you did.

    While I did like this book, I do appreciate where you're coming from. Now that I've had some distance from the book and have come down a bit from the poetic high that is McCann's writing, I can say I liked this book very much but did not love it. I probably will never forget this book, but I won't be returning to it, either.

    For the record, I could have read endlessly about Corrigan. While reading about priests, monks, nuns, celibates, and the like is personally fascinating to me, I found his particular way of looking at the world interesting, priest or not.

    By the way, you're the best book club member for sticking it out when the book wasn't really speaking to you. 🙂

  3. "The best book that I didn't like"…I know that feeling. Sometimes it's even hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong, but what can we do.

  4. Misti – I would not call this one for escape…but maybe Stacie could change your mind.

    Stacie – Thank you for understanding, and personally I think sometimes we grow more from discussing things we don't like but need to appreciate than from things we loved. This review was hard to write & I'm still not sure I adequately described my feelings….

    Nymeth – I knew my fellow reviewers would understand that line. But it is hard to write – it is hard to admit to not liking something and sometimes (as stated above) even harder to explain why.

    Thanks all for enduring with me.

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