Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

I should probably swear off of award winning books, at least lately.  And I'm going to have to start skipping book club when they choose to read an award winner although in all fairness, this particular book was chosen long ago and I could never find the impetus to finish it until recently.  Suffice it to say it's never a good sign when books take up extended residence on my bedside table.  Although this National Book Award winner by Colum McCann is well written, this collection of inter-related stories tenuously connected by the spectacular 1974 Philippe Petit tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center left me unsatisfied.

The short stories focus on one day in the lives of very disparate characters.  There's a Park Avenue matron hosting a meeting for her grief support group for mothers who lost sons in Vietnam, a celibate Irish monk living and working amongst the poor and drug addicted, the monk's brother, mother and daughter prostitutes, the judge who will preside over Philippe Petit's trial, and a counter-culture artist and his wife.  The stories visit the characters on the day of the tightrope walk but also fills in each person's personal back history as well.  Even so, some of the characters feel incomplete and one dimensional.  Characters drive the slowly unfolding novel rather than the singular event that threads through each of the narratives.  And as is often the case in purely character driven novels, the characters are incredibly introspective, perhaps too much so in the cases when their actions already telegraph their thoughts.  In the end, the actual tightrope walk, although a true event, became inconsequential and simply a narrative technique to tie these people together in ways that end up being far closer than the reader first suspects.  It took me a very long time to slog through the book because I just didn't really engage with any of the characters.  McCann's writing may be techniquely well done but there was a cold, flat distance to it that held this reader at a remove.  We might be on the ground looking up at the magic happening high above us in the air but we're too far away to actually feel any of the magic.


  1. Oh No... This is one of my planned reads for 2013. I am sorry to see that you did not enjoy it. I will cross my fingers and hope that I can make it through.

  2. I felt much the same about this when I read it a couple of years ago. I had forgotten that it was a National Book Award winner - it seems I'm just not clicking with that prize.


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