Book Review: Let the Great World Spin

Author: Colum McCann

Publisher: Random House, 2009

Pages: 368

Rating: A

Award Won: 2009 National Book Award and 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and many more

Summary (from Barnes and Noble):

McCann’s sweeping new novel hinges on Philippe Petit’s illicit 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers. It is the aftermath, in which Petit appears in the courtroom of Judge Solomon Soderberg, that sets events into motion. Solomon, anxious to get to Petit, quickly dispenses with a petty larceny involving mother/daughter hookers Tillie and Jazzlyn Henderson. Jazzlyn is let go, but is killed on the way home in a traffic accident. Also killed is John Corrigan, a priest who was giving her a ride. The other driver, an artist named Blaine, drives away, and the next day his wife, Lara, feeling guilty, tries to check on the victims, leading her to meet John’s brother, with whom she’ll form an enduring bond. Meanwhile, Solomon’s wife, Claire, meets with a group of mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam. One of them, Gloria, lives in the same building where John lived, which is how Claire, taking Gloria home, witnesses a small salvation

My Thoughts:

Let the Great World Spin is a collection of stories about ten ordinary people whose lives intersect only on the fringes. What is unusual is how each person’s story is told so intimately. It’s as if I was spying on their thoughts. Most of the character’s lives were sad, quite heartbreaking, but the novel was not depressing. I saw a glimmer of hope, sometimes very small, in the life of each person.

The story is all about New York City, and reviews I’ve read said the character’s stories are an allegory for the life of the city. I didn’t think of that at the time of my reading. I felt the various characters represented a wide variety of people I’ve known in my lifetime.

The beauty of this novel comes in the writing. It lyrical and emotional and brilliant. I highlighted so many quotes that I wanted to share but we would be going on forever. Here are three quotes just to give you a flavor of McCann’s prose.

“Family is like water – it has a memory of what it once filled, always trying to get back to the original stream. I was on the bottom bunk again listening to his slumber verses. The flap of our childhood letter box opened. Opening the door to the spray of sea.”

In speaking of events in our lives that seem to be coincidental:

“Perhaps it’s chance. Or perhaps chance is just another wau to try to convince ourselves that we are valuable.”

The mother who lost her only child in Vietnam thinks:

“My big tall boy, shaving. Long ago, long ago. The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward.”

Let the Great World Spin is not a quick easy read. I’ve been reading it for well over two months. It’s not plot driven. It’s about the characters. It’s intense because it focuses so deeply on the interior life of ten different people. I’m glad I took my time and let each person’s story sink in.

About the author (from his website:

“Colum McCann is the award-winning author of five novels and two collections of short stories. McCann is considered, in every sense, an international artist. Born in Ireland, he has travelled extensively around the world.

McCann is known a “poetic realist,” a writer who is known to tackle the dark in order to get through to the light – “any sort of light, however compromised” – on the far side.

The film rights for “Let the Great World Spin” were bought by J.J Abrams, the highly acclaimed director and creator of “Lost.” McCann is currently adapting the screenplay along with Abrams. It is not McCann’s first foray into film — his short film “Everything in this Country Must,” directed by Gary McKendry, was nominated for an Academy Award Oscar in 2005.

 About the awards:

The National Book Award is an annual award in which only books published in the United State in the year of the award are eligible. Nominations are accepted only from publishers although panel chairs are allowed to request a book from a publisher.

There are four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. Each category has a panel of five judges who set their own criteria. The judges, new each year, are selected by previous winners and judges and the National Book Foundation. They are “chosen for their literary sensibilities and their expertise in a particular genre.” (from the National Book Award website)

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is the largest and most international prize of its kind. It involves libraries from all corners of the globe, and is open to books written in any language.

The Award, an initiative of Dublin City Council, is a partnership between Dublin City Council, the Municipal Government of Dublin City, and IMPAC, a productivity improvement company which operates in over 50 countries. The Award is administered by Dublin City Public Libraries. (from their website here)


About Margot

I'm also known as Joyfully Retired. I love to talk. I love to talk about books I've read, movies I've seen, places I've traveled to, people (especially my children and grandchildren), and Food. On the Quirky Girls Read blog I'm trying to read all the books that have won the major awards and then, of course, talk about them.
This entry was posted in Award Winners, Fiction, Posts by Margot and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Book Review: Let the Great World Spin

  1. Beth F says:

    I know it’s an award winner and that everyone loved it. I tried twice but after finding too many factual errors in the book I just couldn’t finish reading. These were not errors of poetic license but just plain errors of fact that made me pretty much distrust everything the author had to say about place, time, and setting. Just horribly researched as far I was concerned. But apparently facts don’t matter — the book won praise and prizes anyway.

  2. I tried reading this twice too! I didn’t give up because of errors, though, I just couldn’t get into it!

  3. JoAnn says:

    This was one of my favorite books last year.. so beautifully written. Love the quotes you’ve chosen to highlight, especially “Family is like water”. The factual errors didn’t seem to bother me as much as some. I was just blown away by the writing.

  4. It sounds like there are a lot of differing opinions on this one. Hopefully I can give it a try to see which side of the fence I end up on.

  5. kaye says:

    sounds like a good book to spend time with.

  6. Your review made me want to read this one!!!!

  7. Erin says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed this one! I had a really hard time getting into it and would have quit had it not been a Reading Buddies book. I loved the last two sections — they made the book for me. That, and reading the author’s personal note at the end.

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