Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann--a review

It is August, 1974, in New York City, and daredevil wirewalker Philippe Petit makes an amazing, and illegal, walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. This event is the cornerstone of Colum McCann's novel Let the Great World Spin, the strange and wonderful event that connects the story's characters. But the story is not about Petit at all, it is about the lives of a seemingly disparate group of New Yorkers whose brief contact with his wire-walk sets off a chain of events that changes or touches them all.

An Irish monk, John Corrigan, lives in the Bronx and concentrates his saintly impulses on improving the lives of hookers and nursing home patients. Despite his vow of chastity, he falls in love with a Guatemalan nurse.

Judge Solomon Soderberg sees Petit's wire-walk and wants him prosecuted in his courtroom. In order to hurry to Petit's case, he gives short shrift to the case of two prostitutes, friends of John Corrigan's, mother Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn. Soderberg lets Jazzlyn off but sends Tillie to jail. As Corrigan drives Jazzlyn back to the Bronx, they get in a terrible car accident, their van clipped by a car driven by a wannabe artist, Blaine. Blaine's wife Lara is in the car, too. Lara feels terribly guilty, and later seeks out Corrigan's brother Ciaran to make amends.

Other characters include Judge Soderberg's wife Claire, who mourns their son, killed in Viet Nam. And in Claire's grief group is Gloria, an African-American woman who also mourns her two sons, and who lives in the same building in the Bronx where Corrigan lived.
I won't go further into the plot, except to say that McCann elegantly weaves together the stories of his characters and has the mysterious forces of fate bring them together to experience both grief and redemption.

I was charmed at the outset by McCann's lyrical writing style in the very first few pages of the story--a beautiful description of the setting of Petit's wire-walk. Beautiful writing goes a long way with me, but this book has more. It has an elegant plot, woven together out of the stories of several characters. Some of the characters interested me more than others, but I found most of them engaging, and was always drawn in by putting the puzzle pieces of their relationships together.

I love the novel's atmosphere, and the vibrant images McCann conjures. I also enjoyed exploring the novel's themes of fate and whether or not things happen for a reason, and guilt and redemption. New York City is a character itself, and McCann captures its mysteries, both the pleasure and the pain of the city, very well. Maybe because this novel was written after 9/11, but set before it, there was something eerie about thinking of the Twin Towers as the center of this amazing but benign event that topples the dominos of the characters' lives, and rearranges them so completely.

My book group really enjoyed this novel, too. I'll look out for more of McCann's work.


Ti said...

I am on the tour in May. I bought the book ages ago and here it sits... You know the story.

So many have said good things about this one. Oprah had it as a free download for awhile so it got a lot of press from her show. Glad it lives up to the hype.

My word verification word to post this comment is PLOGGER which I find hysterical. It's like a blogger that procrastinates. Me??? Nahhh.

Anonymous said...

I first heard about Petit while researching St. John the Divine and I was just fascinated with his story and then I found out out the documentary. I didn't know about this novel though. Thank you for the review!

litlove said...

Ooh I've heard lots of good things about this novel and am hoping it will appear in paperback in the UK. I will certainly get hold of it when it does!

Gentle Reader said...

Ti--I'm adopting the word plogger right now! I AM a plogger! Hope you enjoy the book, when you get to it :)

StephanieD--I loved the documentary, too. I saw it last year when it was up for the Oscar, and was surprised at how interesting the whole thing was!

litlove--This was a surprise hit for me, I wasn't expecting to be so drawn in :)

lin said...