SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points, if you have not read the book.
Title: Let the Great World Spin
Author: Colum McCann
Page Count: 349
Tone: Intricate, Moving, Lyrical
1. What event(s) are at the center of the story?
2. Which character(s) did you find yourself hoping would appear again? About which character(s) did you want to know more? Did you have a favorite?
3. Were there any episodes or characters that you didn’t feel were well-integrated?
4. Though Corrigan is one of the core characters, he doesn’t speak. His story is narrated by his brother. Why do you think this is? How did you respond to him as a character? Who else is portrayed through others rather than through his/her own voice?
5. Do any of the characters fall into stereotype? Claire? Tillie?
6. Why does Tillie contemplate suicide?
7. Are any of the characters more tragic than others?
8. How did you react to Adelita’s story? Did you enjoy hearing about her first from Ciaran and then later hearing her voice? Did your opinion of her change?
9. One question that haunts Adelita is whether Corrigan, if he had lived, would have chosen to be with her or if he would have decided to be faithful to his religious vows. She even worries “…if that is what he was doing all along – trying to wound his faith in order to test it.” What do you think? Did Corrigan love Adelita? What would he have chosen to do?
10. Describe what happened between Gloria and Claire – both initially and then later in the story. Was this believable?
11. Did you agree with Gloria’s decision to lie and take the Jazzlyn’s daughters?
12. Gloria teaches the girls that there is “…no such thing as shame, that life was about a refusal to be shamed.” In which of the characters is this evident?
13. How is Lara different from the other characters? In what ways is she important to the story?
14. A common criticism is that the multiple stories make the book feel disjointed. Do you agree? Did your experience change as the story progressed?
15. Did you have any difficulty keeping track of the characters? Did it matter? Did this affect your enjoyment of the book?
16. McCann wanted to talk about “the more anonymous corners of the city.” Why? In his Author’s Note, he claims, “Literature can remind us that not all life is already written down: there are still so many stories to be told.” Do you agree?
17. What did you think of Solomon (Claire’s husband, the judge)? What is his role in the story?
18. Discuss the epilogue with Jaslyn. Was this an effective way to end the book?
19. The New York Times Book Review called Let the Great World Spin “…a heartbreaking book, but not a depressing one.” How did the author keep this from being too heavy a story? What were some moments of lightness?
20. There are many “balancing acts” throughout the story. Describe some examples. Was this an effective motif?
21. What did you think of the women’s support group? Why do you think the author chose to have the ladies linked through tragedies of the Vietnam War?
22. Did you like that the tightrope walker himself was given chapters? If this is a story primarily about the crowd, should the perspectives have been limited only to them? What do the sections on the walker himself add to the story as a whole?
23. Originally, the author planned to “mess with history” and have the tightrope walker fall. Would you have liked to read that version?
24. McCann also wrote a number of other stories that were ultimately not included, including a hot-dog vendor, a Muslim shopkeeper, and an elevator man. Would these have enriched the novel? Do you agree with his choices?
25. In one interview, Colum McCann states that the novel “tries to uncover joy and hope and a small glimmer of grace” and goes on to “argue that sort of sentiment [is] necessary these days.” What do you think he meant by this? Do you agree? Was he successful in portraying this?
26. McCann also observes, “You also want it to be a rollicking good story. You want it to break hearts. You want people to finish the story and then immediately want to begin it again.” How did this compare to your experience with the book?
27. How is the setting of 1970s Manhattan brought alive?
28. Much has been made of how Let the Great World Spin is the first great 9/11 novel, and McCann admits it was intended as a 9/11 allegory. How so? Did this interest you more or less in reading the book?
29. Jaslyn keeps a photo of the tightrope walker because she is struck by the idea of such beauty occurring on the same day her mother died. It also joins two other events:
“A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories.”
How is this theme of these connections an important element in Let the Great World Spin?
30. Just as the tightrope walk in 1974 stops time and draws people together, so does the fall of the Towers in 2001. What does this say about “we people on the pavement” (a line from Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory”), both as individuals and as a community?
31. Would you consider Let the Great World Spin to be a political novel? A social novel? How would you describe the book to others?
32. What did you think of the writing – both the story structure and the prose itself? Did either make an impression?
33. Did you notice the chapter headings at all? “This is the House that Horse Built,” for example, is Tillie’s story, and it can refer either to the nursery rhyme or to an Aretha Franklin song popular at that time. “Tag” is the section with the photographer hoping to become famous by documenting graffiti artists’ work. Do these provide insight into the stories?
34. The chapters are also grouped into “books.” What did the stories in each book have in common?
35. The title comes from a Tennyson poem (“Locksley Hall”). How does this illuminate the novel’s themes? What does this book have to say to its readers?
36. In his interview for the National Book Award, McCann observes, “I suppose the novel itself is a contemplation of what it means for life to be unfinished. Things spin. We are made by what we have been, and at the same time we become what we desire. This past and present is braided together with a beauty and an uncertainty.” Did you see traces of this as you read? Does it have relevance for our lives?
37. Would this make a good movie?
Colum McCann’s website
Oprah book discussion questions
Book discussion talking points from Hiking Out blog
Esquire book review
NPR book review
Colum McCann interview with Oprah
Colum McCann interview with Believer Magazine
Idaho Public TV interviews Colum McCann
1974 news footage of Philippe Petit
Man on Wire documentary
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