Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Let the Great World Spin

Just in time for my book club meeting (tonight) I finished Colum McCann's novel Let the Great World Spin. We are always either too indecisive or too eager to read ever to settle on one book. This book is paired with Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. While two could not be any more different in tone or mood, I realize that both involve characters who area able to develop close, dear friendships across cultural barriers.

The central event of McCann's novel is the famous tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center by Phillipe Petit in August of 1974. The author has taken some liberties creating Petit's back story, but all the other characters--the main characters, actually, intersect in unusual ways around those days in New York City. He brings together two Irish brothers--one who has taken religious vows then fallen in love, a mother and daughter who are prostitutes, a couple living a 1920s reenactment until involved in a hit-and-run, and five mothers who have lost children in the Vietnam war, coming together to share their grief and to keep their sons alive through memory.

Because the story moves back and forth between the characters, sometimes told in first person, sometimes in third, and also back and forth in time, the reader has the experience of surprise and discovery as the pieces fit together. The story, though, never feels disjointed or intentionally confusing.

I had read somewhere that this book had been described as a 9/11 novel, so the only real surprise was that it wasn't--at least not directly. With the towers so central, New York so firmly set as the setting, the future of those towers loomed powerfully. McCann presents so many different eyewitness perspectives to the tightrope walk that I was reminded of all those other witnesses 26 years later, those who would always mark where they were when.

While Major Pettigrew wrapped up all the tidy ends, Let the Great World Spin did just the opposite: the author reminds us that is exactly what the world will do.

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