Let the Great World Spin: A Novel

In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.

Let the Great World Spin is the critically acclaimed author’s most ambitious novel yet: a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.

Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth.

Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century.”

A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as a “fiercely original talent” (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal.


  • Paperback: 375 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (December 2, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812973992
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812973990
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars See all reviews (861 customer reviews)
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3 thoughts on “Let the Great World Spin: A Novel”

  1. This is a brilliant book; lyrical, poignant and powerful. It is that rarest of books, the kind that you know will reside inside you for a very long time and will have changed you in some profound way that words can not address. It is a book that, when you reach the last page, will leave you feeling stunned and not sure whether to take a deep breath to digest it all or turn to page one and begin all over again.

    In a sense this book is an homage to the city of New York. It begins with a true historical event, when Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. It is a marvelous sight. It was “one of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief”. (p.247)

    Several people look up to see this tight-rope walker and this shared act of perception is the glue for this book. In some way, each of their lives are inter-connected and will remain connected through time.

    There is Corrigan, very religious in a social/political/and theological sense, who is struggling between his faith and the woman he loves. Corrigan’s love is a Guatamalan nurse, hoping that he will choose her over his God. Ciaran, whose life is in flux, is Corrigan’s brother. Tillie is a prostitute in trouble with the law and hoping that the legacy of prostitution will not be passed down to her granddaughters as it has been to her daughter. Claire lives on Park Avenue but also lives in a world of grief, forever mourning her son who died in Vietnam.Read more ›

  2. Let The Great World Spin was published last year to rave reviews. Descriptions included magical, sweeping, brilliant, poignant and the perfect New York novel. I am definitely out of step when it comes to current fiction because I missed the magic here – finding this book more style than substance.

    The book is a set of vignettes chronicling a loosely connected set of Manhattanites in August of 1974. In the background are the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation and Phillipe Petit- a man who stretched a cable between the World Trade Twin Towers – 103 stories up in the air – and went for a stroll – successfully.

    Our cast includes two Irish brothers; one a catholic priest, who lives among and befriends a pack of heroin addicted prostitutes; a grieving mother who lost her son in the Vietnam War; and a young married couple trying to break into the NY art world in between cocaine binges. Not the most original or creative set of characters, but with a good story to guide them great novels are made. Unfortunately, and this is the biggest fault I had with Let The Great World Spin, the author doesn’t tell us their stories – he explains them. Therefore the characters never became real to me – just their dialogue seemed surreal – and the narrative simply overwhelmed any and all of the underlying stories.

    Think of watching a movie sitting next to someone who has seen it before and feels the need to keep whispering in your ear – detailing plot twists and characters’ actions. At some point you simply want to yell, “Shut up!” I had the same experience/frustration reading this book, hoping – vainly – that the author would remove himself from the narrative. I know I’m in the minority here – but pass on this one.

  3. On the morning of August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit strung a wire between the new, not entirely occupied, twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. He proceeded to step out onto the wire, a quarter of a mile above the pavement, and walk across, eight times, for a period of 45 minutes, while office workers, commuters, and police looked on in wonder, admiration, and consternation.

    Colum McCann tells the story of this aerial crime, enriching it with the stories of ten people who saw or were affected by the aerialist’s action that day, including an Irish-born “street priest” in the South Bronx and his brother; Petit’s sentencing judge, his wife, and son; mother/daughter hookers; and computer programmers on the West Coast. The reader is treated to a series of narratives that could stand alone as short stories, but that are, in the end, interconnected on the day of Philippe Petit’s performance.

    The novel introduces a stunning variety of social and historical issues that played out in the decade of the 1970’s. The breakdown of social class is seen in the coming together of a group of mothers, mourning the loss of their sons in the Vietnam War, while celebrating their lives. The effects of poverty and drug addiction on women and children are illustrated by the “family business” of prostitution. The power of interlinked computers and telecommunications was in its infancy and creating excitement among the programmers who were thinking and dreaming big. The Vietnam War, moving towards its close in 1974, divided friends and family in New York City and elsewhere. The World Trade Center towers, newly constructed and occupied, represent a beginning in this novel, rather than the iconic destruction and terror we associate with them today.Read more ›

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