Saturday, November 6, 2010

Review of the Day: Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin is a collection of short stories that form a novel centered around Philippe Petit’s 1974 high wire act between the Twin Towers of Manhattan’s World Trade Center. Petit’s remarkable performance was real and paints a bittersweet, nostalgic backdrop for the fictional stories of a dozen or so seemingly disparate characters who all, it turns out, are connected.

Colum McCann won the 2009 National Book Award for this collection, the main storyline of which concerns an Irish monk on his own sacred mission to help a group of streetwalkers in Queens. A police roundup triggers a series of events that leads to tragedy but ends, ultimately, on a happier note. The monk, the prostitutes, his brother, his lover, a pair of campy would-be artists, a group of mothers mourning their sons dead in Vietnam, a criminal court judge, nascent computer hackers, and assorted others people the cast of this 1970s New York City variety show.

The collection is a little uneven: some of the various narrators’ voices are more authentic than others, several of the hand-offs seem overly choreographed, and the significance of Petit’s tightrope act as a unifying theme is vague. But overall, Let the Great World Spin is an exuberant and satisfying book.

(If you would like your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)


This was my National pick for the Battle of the Prizes, American Version challenge.  I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout -- another collection of short-stories-as-novel -- for my Pulitzer prize pick. The challenge runs through the end of January 2011, so there is still time to sign up.


  1. I ve had this in my tbr pile for a good while ,I loved the idea of the book the tightrope walk and people in the city on that day ,really should try and move it up the pile at some point ,all the best stu

  2. I'm glad you liked it. I have it one my shelf after all the hype last year and still haven't gotten to it, LOL.

  3. Thanks for the review - I have this one on the shelf too. Some people seem to have really loved it but the storyline doesn't appeal that much to me . . . I am hoping to be pleasantly surprised when I start it!

  4. winstonsdad: The parts about Petit's tightrope walk were my favorite because I am so amazed by the whole thing.

    Marie: I am turned off by hype, but I try to read the National winners, so sometimes I give in.

    Booksnyc: You may like it a lot because of the New York connection.

  5. I purchased this title, and Olive Kitteridge, oddly enough, at a yard sale a couple of weeks ago. I appreciate the way you point out the positive and negative aspects of the novels you're reviewing. I do wonder, as I had no idea before looking at your previous review that Olive Kitteridge was so depressive, why the cover art is so bright and warm if the content is quite gloomy. It's interesting. Thanks for the post!

  6. Beth: This book and Olive Kitteridge seem to go together, since they won the big prizes in 2009 and are both short-stories-as-novels. Interesting that the same format caught the judges' fancy for both the National and Pulitzer.

    There are a few books that I love wholeheartedly, but most I find to be a mixed bag, even if I like them.

    Hope you enjoy both of these.

  7. I've heard and read good things about both Let the Great World Spin and Olive Kitteridge. The stories may not be even throughout but both sound like very interesting books! So glad you enjoyed them.

    Your mention is the first I've heard of the Battle of the Prizes but I love the idea of this challenge and just might join next year!

  8. Never thought about it until your review suggested it: Petit as the walker has the circus of the city and other characters going on beneath him. He's purely and single-mindedly pursuing his dream, while the others are often distractedly living their messy lives. I like the contrast, though this is too simplified to be the only meaning.

    Thanks for another thoughtful and thought-provoking review!

  9. We sell alot of copies of this in the used bookstore, but I have yet to try it...
    Just found your blog, and think it is great...I will be back ;)

  10. Nice review of this novel - I hadn't thought of it as a collection of connected short stories, but once you said that, I found I agreed with your assessment! Here is my review.


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