Posted by: Jeanie F | April 12, 2010

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

This novel, the winner of the National Book Award for 2009, has been reviewed so much that there is little new to be added to the conversation. I came to it believing that it was based on Phillipe Petit’s astonishing tightrope walk between the World Trade Center Towers in 1974. As it turns out, that was the unifying event for the novel, but the story is really one of connectedness, of chance, of luck and the lack of luck and, most of all, humanity in its many forms.

Based almost entirely in New York City, the novel interweaves the lives of a disparate group of people: two Irish brothers living in the Bronx, a group of women grieving for the deaths of their sons in the Viet Nam War, hookers, a nurse who has emigrated from Central America to name a few. All bring a unique perspective to the story and yet share certain similarties. The common thread is that these people are knocked down, but manage to find their way up again. In an interview conducted for the National Book Award, McCann claims this trait among the characters to be allegorical of New York City post-9/11 – that even in grief, we all find a common level.

One of the great strengths of this fine book is the lyrical language. McCann has found the subtle nuances in these characters lives and expressed them clearly through language. Open the book randomly to nearly any page (as I did here), and you’ll find yourself bowled over by the elegance of his imagery:

The wind ruffles the light curtains at the window. Alençon lace. Handmade, tatted, with silk trimmings. Never much for French lace. She would have preferred an ordinary fabric, a light voile. The lace was [her husband’s] idea, long ago. The stuff of marriage. The good glue.

A row of smokers stood out in front of Metropolitan Hospital on Ninety-eighth and First Avenue. Each looked like his last cigarette, ashen and ready to fall.

He was at the origin of things and I now had a meaning for my brother – he was a crack of light under the door, and yet the door was shut to him.  Only bits and pieces of him would leak out and he would end up barricaded behind that which he had penetrated.

Over and over the author nearly assaults us with the uniqueness, the accuracy, the beauty of his writing. You see people – many ordinary people you would encounter any day – in extraordinary ways.

When all is said and done, the story is a long  journey from 1974 to 9/11/2001, told within the time frame of a very few days. The trick that gets us there is nearly as amazing as Petit’s walk across the wire. When you finish, you’ll want to tell everyone about the experience.

Grade: A


  1. Another blogger who gave it a 6 out of 5 lamented that it didn’t win Pulitzer. That comment has certainly carried a weight and that it has made an impression on my mind. Your comment about its lyrical language has cemented the recommendation. I’m sold. 🙂

    • I don’t think you’ll regret it, Matt. It really deserves all the kudos and recognition it deserves! I’ll be interested to hear how you like it.

  2. Hi. Found you on the hop. Someone recommended this to me just yesterday. Your review clinches it; I’m adding it to my list right now. Thanks!

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