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A Kaleidoscopic Book That'll Make Your 'World Spin'

by Wendy MacLeod
Mar 7, 2011

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Back in the days before Netflix, every time my husband and I walked into a video store, The Shawshank Redemption would be staring us in the face. The critics had raved about the movie, two fine actors appeared in it, and yet at a certain point, because the critics had raved about it, seeing the movie had turned into a duty rather than a pleasure. To this day, we haven't seen the film.

Fortunately I read Let The Great World Spin before I grew tired of seeing the book on the "staff pick" shelves. Don't let the awards and rave reviews put you off. Despite the fact that The New York Times called it "one of the most electric, profound novels ... in years," you must read this book.

By focusing the book and its characters through a single summer's day in 1974, the day a French tightrope-walker crossed a wire suspended between the World Trade Center buildings, the Irish writer Colum McCann offers us a glimpse into our collective past. If at first I feared that McCann's prismatic approach to New York would be dutifully multicultural, I came away dazzled by his ability to capture the voices of uptown and downtown: the prostitutes, immigrants, socialites and aspiring artists. Although we complain about the ongoing gentrification of New York City, McCann reminds us that in 1974, the deteriorating, bankrupt city was a difficult place to live.

The book opens on Corrigan, an Irish monk who lives in a housing project in the South Bronx, and leaves his apartment door open so that the streetwalkers might use the bathroom, a simple but astonishing act of compassion given the violence that might walk in that door. But Corrigan, who has chosen to live with the thieves and prostitutes, is no saint himself; the book suggests that he's a heroin addict, and his vow of chastity is tested by his love for a Guatemalan nurse. But just when we've learned our way around Corrigan's neighborhood, McCann takes us to Park Avenue, where we meet a socialite who is grieving for the son she lost in Vietnam.

Claire has joined an unlikely support group of mourning mothers from Staten Island and the Bronx but they might as well be from a different planet. When the meeting in Claire's Upper East Side penthouse begins to break up, Claire is so desperate for company that she misguidedly offers an African-American woman money to stay, inadvertently treating her like the hired help.

These two women, Claire and Gloria, mirror each other like the twin towers that function as the central image of the book. As Philippe Petit managed to cross the divide between the World Trade Center buildings one summer day, these women traverse the great divides of race and class to become friends. The many strands of the novel are plaited together when Claire accompanies Gloria back to the South Bronx and two needy children unexpectedly enter the women's lives, allowing them to finally get beyond their own grief. Corrigan's kindness plays a role in these people coming together; suggesting that goodness begets goodness, and that we are all, as McCann said in an interview, "intimately connected."

I may never know whether The Shawshank Redemption deserved its superlatives, but I can assure you that Let The Great World Spin comes by its reviews honestly. Don't let this book languish on the staff pick shelves.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.

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