This is my second time reading the book. I'd read it when it first came out a few years ago and was relatively unimpressed by the structure and the story, though I enjoyed the writing behind it. I joined a book club, though, and this is the book for April. So I picked it up again, determined to give it another chance. It took me a long time to get to a point where my mind was changed, but it ultimately got there.
The book takes place in August 1974 New York, on the summer day that Phillipe Petit walked across a wire strung between the Twin Towers. A series of semi-connected vignettes tells the stories of several people whose lives are changed on the day. From the Irish priest too concerned with saving the needy to take care of himself to the prostitutes who depend on him, the lonely woman on Park Avenue struggling to grieve for the son she lost in Vietnam, and a pair of artists determined to give up the city and the drugs for the benefit of their art.
The first vignette - that of John Corrigan, who comes to New York from Ireland to pursue what he perceives as his religious calling to care for the downtrodden - is stunning. Narrated by his brother Ciaran, the story details how as a child Corrigan was so drawn to troubled souls around him that he more than once gave up his blanket to the homeless. After their mother's death, Corrigan heads to New York on mission. Ciaran follows a few years later to find his brother offering refuge to multiple generations of prostitutes while struggling with his attraction to a young Latin American nurse and denying a potentially serious medical diagnosis. McCann weaves Corrigan's doubts and Ciaran's fears for his brother's well-being with mind-blowing prose that stuck me in the heart with something sharp. There was a lot that resonated with me on a personal level and I was drawn in by the taut narrative.
When the focus shifts to the other characters, McCann began to lose me. Each section is well-written, though the sections without quotation marks irritated me. I just didn't feel as drawn in by the other characters' stories as I did with Corrigan. McCann brings Corrigan back late in the book, and reading Adelita's account of falling for him brought tears to my eyes. I thought the thread that connected the characters - Petit's high-wire act - was unique and interesting, but the notion of connecting several independent stories together with a single event is not a revolutionary technique, and I've read other examples of the same concept that I've enjoyed more. So, it's not my favorite book but I found I enjoyed it more when I gave it a second chance. I just wish it had been a little more consistent throughout, in terms of how it resonated with me.