Review: Let the Great World Spin

Title: Let the Great World Spin
Author: Colum McCann
Pages: 349
Genre: Literary Fiction
Release Date: June 23, 2009
Publisher: Random House
Source: Personal Copy

Sometimes a book comes along that completely changes my perception of profound literary prose. After sitting on my shelf unread for about a year, I finally picked up Let the Great World Spin because it was a selection for my book club. I'm not quite sure why it took me so long to read this amazing work, but I am so glad I did. This is by far the best book I've read in quite a while. 

There are many other reviews of Let the Great World Spin that would provide a more detailed synopsis of the novel, but to me there isn't really a good summary that doesn't give away too much of book. So, I'm going to keep it short and simple. Set against the backdrop of Philippe Petit's stunning tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, Colum McCann's National Book Award winning novel interweaves the stories of various inhabitants of New York City. From prostitutes to judges and clergy members to a tagger, each person's narrative represents the different races, religions, and social strata that make the city so eclectic.

Without a doubt, McCann is a master with the English language. The way he fictionalized an exhilarating historical event from one year to subtly commentate on such a tragic event from another year was brilliant. This book is amazingly well-written, and there is such attention paid to word choice and sentence structure. I didn't notice one instance of a misused metaphor or a superfluous sentence. Each character is individually fleshed out in terms of personality and especially dialect. The writing is so evocative and richly detailed that I wanted to slow my reading and absorb all the expansive imagery. One must meander through the stories to fully grasp the connections throughout, which aren't necessarily evident or straightforward.

Let the Great World Spin requires patience to fully receive the treasured reward at the end. Many reviews cite that the beginning was choppy and jumped around too much for them to continue reading. I would argue that the first half was more descriptive and fully developed. None of the first three stories was less than 40 pages. However, the second half does provide a lot of answers that will satisfy most of the antsy readers. I found myself most engrossed in Gloria's story, which isn't until page 285. This is when everything started connecting for me, and I found my appreciation ballooning. One of my favorite lines was said by her character, "I gave them all the truth and none of the honesty." Such an accurate statement.

Too many themes and ideas occur in the pages to really flesh out here, but the one that stood out to me was the need to appreciate the everyday. These characters are so human that it can be heartbreaking, but they must accept their situation, leave the past behind and do whatever necessary to survive the day-to-day grind of city that doesn't stop spinning. 

He had a theory about it. It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present...New York kept going forward precisely because it didn't give a good goddamn about what it had left behind. It was like the city that Lot left, and it would dissolve if it ever began looking backward over its own shoulder.

Despite what may appear on the surface, these people and their stories are not depressing. Bittersweet, maybe, but the strength necessary to endure all the struggles and losses is quite inspirational. These stories show how everything is connected in such a vast city. Not necessarily in a physical or social way, but definitely in the universality of human emotions. Let the Great World Spin requires patience to fully grasp the reward at the end almost like a conductor winding each story together to create a complex yet breathtaking masterpiece. This book will stick with me for quite a while, and I fully intend to re-read it in the future.


  1. It was one of my favorites of 2010 (also for bookclub) and my first review ever :) Have you seen the documentary Man on Wire? Highly recommended.

  2. This sounds like a beautiful book. I am adding it to my TBR list- thanks for the great review!

  3. This sounds like it's well worth reading, but I think I'll have to wait until life slows down a little to tackle it.

  4. I need to read this one SOON. I bought it a month or two ago but haven't had a chance to pick it up yet!

  5. I can't wait to read this one

  6. A most intriguing review that is as slippery as some claim the book is. Maybe I'll give this book a try since you loved it.

  7. I bought this when it first came out and have been looking for the right opportunity to read it. I also have read some of those tepid reviews, and had started to worry, but reading what you have to say about the book gives me hope because I often like books that seem to meander at first and then snap together like a good puzzle. I loved your review of this one and will be checking it out soon. Thanks for your detail and insight on this one. It was much appreciated!

  8. Great review -- I've only seen this book in stores -- somehow, no reviews until yours -- but you've got me so curious! I love vignette-y portraits and beautiful language -- yum!

  9. Loved your review. I enjoyed the audio version of this one.

  10. This has been sitting on my shelf for along time - I'd best get reading it!


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