Review: Let the Great World Spin

18 May

Totally by coincidence, this review of Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin coincides with the blog tour that’s happening right now, completely unintentionally I swear.

That being said, I read this book a few weeks ago, right before The Help, and considering how enthralled I was by that book, it’s not all that surprising that I kind of forgot to review this one. But I’ve also been torn about how I feel about McCann’s National Book Award winner. Before I picked it up, I’d heard nothing but praise — for its breathtaking emotional weight, for the poetry of the language, for the accurate and simultaneously romantic portrayal of New York City in the 70s.

The premise is this: On an August day in 1974, Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the World Trade Towers. Every character’s story in this book is somehow connected to each other’s, and what grounds them all in time and location is this extraordinary act of walking the wire. Petit is a character in the novel, but a very small one, and some might say inconsequential, as this woven story really could have taken place at any moment, on any day, in New York City. It didn’t need Petit’s feat (or feet, if you will) to ground it in setting, but it’s certainly one way of doing so.

Nevertheless, McCann presents the sequence of events in a jumbled order, and through the eyes of several characters, who are beautifully constructed and deeply felt, each in their own right. They are each complex and fully realized. I was struck, as many people said I would be, by the poetry of the language and the ease at which McCann paints a scene. I won’t deny that I felt the pulse of NYC in 1974 through the pages, and was enamored by the technical prowess he displayed in doing so.

However, I kept wondering what I was missing. I didn’t feel a pull by this book, a desire to keep reading or a desire to not put it down. In fact I would set it down for days at a time, without thinking about it, and only when I wanted to move onto The Help did I read it continuously in order to finish it. By about 50 pages from the end, everything started to click for me; I started to understand the fascination, and then it was a page-turning sprint to the end. All the pieces fell into place and I praised the book’s poetry and story as much as the people who’d originally recommended I read it.

But the fact that it took me nearly to the end of the book to feel that way was disappointing. I expect a National Book Award winner to be intriguing and compelling from the start. But with each subsequent chapter, I kept wondering what the point was, what was the motivation for each of these characters, and how did they all fit together. I don’t ask for suspense per se in a book that’s obviously not intended to be suspenseful in the traditional manner, but I do need something to keep me reading from the beginning.

I’m not the only one that had issues. Beth at Beth Fish Reads didn’t even finish the book, but her reasons where more about factual mistakes. I would argue that for the right book, mistakes like that don’t matter if you still want to finish the story. Matthew at A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook posted a mid-read query that mirrors my own ambiguous feelings about the trajectory of the book, and then a final review after he switched to the audio version.

I know there are other sparkling reviews out there, and I still feel like I’m missing something. Did any of you read it and love it without question? Anyone else have hesitations as I did?


2 Responses to “Review: Let the Great World Spin”

  1. lori (TNBBC) June 1, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    Hey, check my blog! I gave you an award –

  2. Literary Cravings June 3, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    Hey great review!!!!

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