Friday, January 7, 2011

Review: Let the Great World Spin

Summary: In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.

Let the Great World Spin is the critically acclaimed author’s most ambitious novel yet: a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.

Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth.

Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century.” A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as a “fiercely original talent” (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal. -- Random House

When my friend selected LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN by Colum McCann for our December book club meeting, I was pretty excited. Despite hearing some not-so-good things about this book from some fellow book blogging friends, I was curious to read this award winning book and judge for myself. And then, some of my book club friends who started the book earlier than I did started telling me that it just wasn't a book that they were enjoying. So I must admit that I approached this book not really expecting to like it very much.

So I reluctantly began LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN just a few days prior to our meeting. It might have been my mindset, but I had a very hard time getting into the book. And if the first chapter was any indication, then it wasn't going to be easy for me to get through this novel. I was having a difficult time relating to the story and the characters, and I wasn't really feeling much of anything. But because it was a book club book (and an award-winning one at that), I decided to stick with it. Boy, am I glad I did because I ended up thinking LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN was a pretty darn good book. It just kept getting better and better the more I thought about it -- and that's really saying something.

The premise of LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is, without a doubt, a very unique one. The book takes place in New York City in the 1970s and tells the stories of various characters. There is an Irish immigrant monk, a prostitute, a young artist, and a grieving mother to name just a few; and each chapter focuses on one of their relatively ordinary lives. A minor character in one story might appear later with their own chapter, and I eventually looked forward to each new chapter to see whose story I would read next. All of the chapters and characters were tied together by one very unique event -- the day man performed on a tightrope between the Twin Towers.

As is the case anytime I read books like this one, there were some chapters that I enjoyed more than others. In LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, there were a few standout ones to me, but my absolutely favorite was the chapter about Tillie, the 38 year old prostitute who was also a grandmother. Tillie was a fascinating character and one that my heart just broke for over and over again; however, I think what most impressed me about this chapter was how incredibly well written it was. This might sound awful, but I was amazed that a white man captured the essence of Tillie's character like McCann did. This chapter was one of the most memorable sections of any book that I've read in recent memory.

If I had a problem with LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, it's that I might not have been smart enough for it. While I definitely appreciated many, many things about this story, I'm still afraid that I might have missed some of the nuances and symbols in the story. I probably shouldn't say this for fear of sounding dumb, but there were a few small sections in the book that went right over my head. As I was reading them, I knew they meant something, but darned if I knew. A few of the girls in my group felt the same way and we tried to analyze what the possible meanings were.... I'm not entirely sure that we were ever happy with our conclusions!

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN actually was a great book to discuss with a group. Not everyone appreciated this story as much as I did, but we still managed to talk about it for a long time. There is a very good reading guide in the back of the book which certainly helped us focus our discussion. There were many wonderful characters with interesting stories to delve into; however, there were also some powerful themes which warranted further discussion including grief, love, guilt, obligations, commitments, fresh starts, mother/daughter relationships, sacrifice, healing and ultimately hope . In addition, there are many circumstances unique to New York in the 1970s which our group found interesting.  Finally, there is the recurring symbol of the tightrope walker which weaves throughout all of the stories and was just so well-done!

I'm not entirely sure that LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is for everyone, but I do think many of you should at least give it a chance. It is a powerful and well written novel that will remain in my thoughts for a very long time.

14 comments:

Veens said...

I am also glad you stuck with it. I am glad you liked it, because after reading the premise, this is in my wishlist too. I will keep in mind that it is hard to get into :)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I put this down after struggling through the first chapter, but Ti also said it gets way better after that and to stick with it, so I'll be trying it soon!

bermudaonion said...

This almost sounds like a series of short stories. I have a feeling I'm not smart enough for it, if parts of it were over your head.

Beth F said...

I guess I gave up too early but after finding 4 or 5 factual errors in the first 75 pages, I just lost faith in the book.

marthalama said...

I love when I have low expectations for a book and then I'm surprised by liking it. I don't even mind when books make me feel, less than smart, and I have to work for them. That being said, I don't know if this is the book for me, but I may just have to, at least, give it a try.

Melanie said...

Good to hear you liked it. I picked it for my f2f book club this month and I haven't read it yet. I guess I'd better get started :)

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Oh I am certain you are smart enough for it, Julie! And I like how honest you were about your feelings and also about the beginning! Sometimes the award winners take a while to get into -- ah literary fiction :)

Sandy Nawrot said...

A few things went over my head too, but I just kept trucking through it, and was completely swept off my feet. I had this thought that this book is what literature, GOOD literature, is all about. Not only was it in my top reads of the year, it might very well land in my top reads ever. I'm so glad you loved it!

carolsnotebook said...

This one always catches my eye. I'll have to give it a shot one of these days, remembering to give myself some time to really get into it.

diaryofaneccentric said...

I thought this book got better and better, too. I didn't really care for the sections on the tightrope walker, but I could see why they were included.

Alyssa said...

I am glad I found a blog that reviewed "Let the Great World Spin"! Not too many of my friends are readers and I was anxious to hear some opinions on the novel.

I completely agree with your assessment! It was a slow go at the beginning but I think it built a great foundation for the rest of the book.

I just felt like the book was written with such patience. I have read another by the same author. Not quite as enjoyable but there was definitely the same great depth in the characters.

iwriteinbooks said...

I've heard some really great things about this. I haven't gotten around to it, yet, but it's on my list for sure. I know it's a little bit unique in format, so I think I've been saving it for when I'll be able to really focus.

Carin S. said...

It's my book club selection for Feb - I'm glad I see your review, it gives me hope! I just watched the documentary Man on Wire about the tightrope walker. It was fascinating.

Katherine.Erlikh said...

Read the book and I am definitely not impressed.
Feels like one of those pretentious artsy books that English teachers in the generations to come will use to teach their students that there is nothing worse than reading.
Pure garbage.