Suzanne's Reviews > Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
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Dec 18, 2011

bookshelves: book-club
Recommended to Suzanne by: book club
Read from November 25 to December 12, 2011

A book even partially about Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who walked a cable between the World Trade Towers in 1974, should be, if not light and airy, at least inspirational. The majority of this book was just dreadfully depressing. I did not begin to enjoy it until about 75% through, when some of the stories became more palatable, even appealing. But that was too little, way too late.

The great majority of the pages were devoted to life in the slums of New York City; drug-addicted prostitutes who watch their adolescent children following their career path; life in prison so gruesome for one character she spends her entire chapter talking about suicide; and other similarly calibrated scenes of life in the Big City. One of the main characters is killed in a car accident, another suffers obsessive guilt over her part in the tragedy. In the better neighborhoods, the grief of a deceased Vietnam vet’s mother threatens to crush her.

Some later chapters were much better. I sympathized with a middle-aged judge ruminating on the failure of his youthful idealistic hopes to make a difference in people’s lives among the reality of the political machinations and deal-making in the NYC court system necessary just to keep the sludge-filled dockets from grinding to a complete halt. I liked the story of two women from very different sides of the tracks suffering misunderstandings that threaten to derail a budding friendship that is very important to both of them. And the chapter narrated by a woman remembering a short intense love affair before her man is killed was a heart-breaker and beautifully told. The few portions of the book that did deal directly with Petit were fascinating and poetic, but the percentage of words about him was very small.

I cannot say it is a bad book. It just wasn’t for me. The writing is very good in places, really wonderful in some. In others it uses a staccato, truncated sentence style that really got on my nerves because it went on for too long. But there are many, many beautifully written passages and clearly some evidence of talent here. It is just misused, in my opinion.

Halfway through, I became curious about how it might all come together and wanted to see if there was a point to all the relentless sadness and tragedy. I think McCann intended to paint some sort of contrast between the pathetic, sad and sordid lives on the ground with the soaring effects of Petit’s artistry. I’m not sure. And that’s the problem. The two aspects of the book were not adequately integrated for me. If the goal was to point to the redemptive power of art in the face of the gruesomeness of everyday life, it did not succeed in making that connection, although the specialness and inspiration of Petit's achievement cannot be denied.

For anyone interested in the topic of Philippe Petit, skip the book. Rent the excellent documentary Man on Wire instead. I envy the people who saw him walk that day.
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Reading Progress

11/25/2011 page 62
18.0% "Wonderful writing, I just wish I was enjoying the story a bit more."
12/02/2011 page 125
36.0% "It's getting better (on 3rd story), but some of the stylistic idiosyncrasies are really annoying."
12/04/2011 page 160
46.0% "I don't know why this isn't floating my boat, but it isn't. Had a brief moment of hope around p. 120 that it was improving, but . . . I was wrong. I'm bored." 5 comments
12/10/2011 page 247
71.0% "The grimness continues . . ."
12/15/2011 page 349
100.0% "I'm not going to star-rate this but will have a few comments later about my very mixed feelings about this book."

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Julie (new)

Julie I felt the same, Suzanne. I gave this a pass after a few chapters; it just failed to grab me.


message 2: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne It's my book club's read this month, so I'll probably stick with it. Actually I seconded the choice. I was intrigued by the tie-in with Philippe Petit because I loved the documentary "Man on Wire." So I'm waiting to see where that connection goes.


message 3: by Julie (new)

Julie Philippe Petit was the very reason I began reading this. He is one-of-a-kind! Love "Man On Wire" as well. I hope this ends up as a worthwhile read for you. I found that book club reads I didn't care for always made for the most interesting discussions!


Kerry "The two aspects of the book were not adequately integrated..."

This is a great diagnosis.


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