, April 01, 2014
In the epicenter of Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, lays Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk, 110 stories up, between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. McCann’s complex story of intertwined lives in New York City hardly mentions the event in detail, but balances the entire novel.
The novel is separated into four books and in total the four books contain twelve separate short stories (chapters). I would recommend this novel to an audience of mature readers who are looking for a skillfully crafted piece of literature. Forewarning, this is not a light read, often times I felt my heart wrenching for the characters of this novel.
In its totality, Let the Great World Spin merges the lives of seemingly unrelated New Yorkers into a moving story about love, loss, and hope.
Set in the 1970s, the Twin Towers stood tall and strong, rather than the destruction and terror that they are known for today. McCann seamlessly intertwines the towers throughout the novel, hardly mentioning their presence, yet as the reader we recognize their importance all along the way. In many ways, Let the Great World Spin is homage to New York City. McCann often describes its beauty and dishevelment through each of his interconnected short stories. McCann’s vivid use of imagery transports you on a trip to New York, "one of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief,” (247).
The novel follows the stories of various New Yorkers, ranging from a hooker in the Bronx to a matron on Park Avenue. Their stories, all intertwined, create a very complex tale centered around Petit’s tremendous walk. The novel begins with two Irish brothers: Corrigan and Ciaran, living in their hometown of Dublin. Corrigan is a Catholic Priest who later takes off for New York, where the real story begins. He befriends a group of prostitutes, who are addicted to Heroin, acting as a safe house while they lead their troubled lives. Corrigan also struggles with his faith, trying his hardest to be disciplined. He must avoid a woman that he’s falling in love with. At one point Corrigan states, “when you’re young, God sweeps you up. He holds you there. The real snag is to stay there and know how to tall. All those days when you can’t hold on any longer. When you tumble. The test is being able to climb up again,”(50).
Throughout the novel, we also hear from Tillie, a prostitute who is struggling with the idea of her granddaughters working the streets like her daughter, Jazzlyn, does now. Tillie’s rawness of thoughts and disturbed life will leave you speechless.
Next, we learn about a grieving mother, Claire, who lost her son to the Vietnam War. Struggling with loss, she joins a support group full of other grieving women, though her Park Avenue penthouse often gets in the way of any chance of friendship. The story also follows Claire’s husband, Soloman, who is the judge to charge Petit. They’re stories deal with loss, and how it shakes us all to the core in different ways.
Finally, we learn about a young artistic couple, Lara and Blaine. After a traumatic accident, Lara questions her marriage and life choices, compelling us readers to reflect on our own coming of age.
McCann’s skillful control of characterization and imagery create a reeling movie inside every reader’s mind. The novel digs deep down into the core of commonly shared human emotions: love, loss, and hope. As a reader you feel compelled to annotate the entire novel so you don’t miss any of the profound statements that McCann eloquently reveals in quick sentences packed with punch.
Let the Great World Spin is unique in that it sits with you. It racks your brain. After closing the back cover, it took some time to digest. McCann’s raw and profound statements don’t leave you. They stir inside of you until you can make sense of them. It would be an injustice to simply “highly recommend” this novel, Let the Great World Spin is the must read of our modern 21st century society.
“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough,” (349).