It is 2006 and Jaslyn studies a photograph of the tightrope walker. It was taken, she knows, on the exact same day that her mother, Jazzlyn, died. It makes her think about life’s simultaneity, the strange wonder that something so beautiful could possibly have happened at the same time as something so disastrous and ugly. She carries the picture with her as she travels, along with a lock of her sister’s hair.
Jaslyn is quite conscious of the idea of time: not only the passing of it—as she looks back from a 34-year vantage point—but also the notion of significant events happening in concert with one another. In a sense, this outlook is perfectly suited for the culminating chapter of a book concerned with the myriad incongruent stories of New York City.
Jaslyn is flying from Little Rock, Arkansas to New York. On the plane she meets Pino, an Italian man who works for Doctors Without Borders and who also lives in Arkansas. Although it is unlike her to flirt with a stranger, the two of them hit it off while the plane ushers them toward New York. When they land, they split a cab into the city, clearly knowing they’ve made a sudden and strong connection.
It is clear right away that Jaslyn leads a very different life than her mother and grandmother did. Not only does she not live in New York, but she also appears to be guarded when it comes to men, a trait that couldn’t be used to describe Jazzlyn or Tillie.
The taxi drops Jaslyn off in the Upper East Side. She slips her card into Pino’s front pocket. Normally she doesn’t act this way; she is viewed as uptight at the tax preparation nonprofit where she works. In general, she is painfully aware of her family history—she is embarrassed by the fact that she comes from a long line of prostitutes. However, in this moment she allows Pino to kiss her on the lips. She wishes her coworkers could be there to see her.
As a character, Jaslyn continues to emerge as her mother and grandmother’s opposite, as evidenced by her innocent excitement when Pino kisses her on the lips.
When Jaslyn enters the building, the doorman recognizes her and sends her up to the Soderberg residence. There, she is greeted at the door by a hired nurse. Jaslyn explains to him that she is Claire’s niece, immediately revising this statement by saying that she isn’t really her niece but that Claire calls her by that name. Jaslyn asks how the old woman is doing, and the nurse hesitates ominously before saying that Claire is not doing well at all. Jaslyn steps into the apartment and remembers how she and her sister, Janice, used to be intimidated when Gloria—who raised them—used to bring them into the city to visit Claire.
In this scene it becomes clear that Claire and Gloria solidified a strong bond after the night they spent listening to classical music in Claire’s apartment. The fact that the doorman recognizes Jaslyn points to how close the two women must have gotten to one another.
When she fully enters the apartment, Jaslyn is surprised to see a group of six people drinking cocktails. She introduces herself, and a tall, clearly wealthy man her age steps forward to shake her hand, introducing himself as Tom—Claire’s nephew—and saying that it’s nice to finally meet her. The word “finally” hangs in the air, seeming somehow more malicious than gracious.
In her interaction with Tom, Jaslyn senses resentment, as if Claire has talked ceaselessly about her in a way that has caused her relatives to distrust or at least dislike what she represents. There seems to be a racial tension at play here in conjunction with a worry that Jaslyn will inherit money that should go to family members.
It becomes clear to Jaslyn that she will not be able to stay in the apartment’s guestroom as she had intended. She had wanted to spend several days with Claire to “accompany her dying” in the same way that she accompanied Gloria in death six years previous—she and Janice drove Gloria to Missouri, where they buried her near her childhood home.
With the news that Claire is on her deathbed, we also learn that Gloria has already died. As such, we feel time working on the novel, perhaps also realizing that many of the other characters we came to know have possibly died, too.
Aware that she won’t be able to spend the time she had wanted with Claire, Jaslyn asks Tom if she can go see the old woman. Tom says that she’s sleeping and offers Jaslyn a drink instead, pretending to forget her name at the end of his sentence. Jaslyn declines by saying that she doesn’t need a drink, because she has a room at the Regis, the fanciest hotel name she can remember. She promptly leaves, resisting Tom’s offer to show her to the lobby. As he leans forward to kiss her cheek, she lets her shoulder bump his chin. She then gets a room at the Regis, despite its exorbitant cost.
Tom’s refusal to allow Jaslyn into Claire’s room is less protective than it is territorial. It is obvious that he wants to make Jaslyn feel unwelcome and uncomfortable, a fact made even clearer when he intentionally forgets her name. He seems to think he’s putting her in her place. It’s not hard to believe that Gloria would be proud of the way Jaslyn allows her shoulder to hit Tom’s chin.
Not long after the United States first attacked Afghanistan, Jaslyn visited Ireland, where her sister had been stationed by the Army. Unlike Janice, Jaslyn wanted to learn about their mother, so she drove alone from Galway to Dublin to meet Ciaran. He was the CEO of a company and worked in a fancy building in the city. Ciaran told her about Corrigan and took her to a pub. When Jaslyn started crying, Ciaran went to call his wife. Coming back inside after the phone conversation, he invited Jaslyn to dinner.
Jaslyn’s curiosity regarding her mother’s past indicates what it must have been like to grow up knowing that Jazzlyn was a prostitute killed at such a young age. As readers, the idea that Ciaran might be able to help Jaslyn better understand her mother’s life is wildly unrealistic, and we regretfully watch as she tries in vain to get information out of this kind but ineffectual man.
Jaslyn, Ciaran, and Ciaran’s wife, Lara, spent a slow evening in the garden behind Ciaran and Lara’s house, which had walls cluttered by art. Lara drew Jaslyn into a hug and held her there for a long time. The next day, Jaslyn went to Limerick and met up again with her sister, who had just met a man who was also in the army. Not long afterward, Janice was sent to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
In this scene, we learn that Lara and Ciaran did, in fact, end up together—a happy ending if not for the tragic event that drove them together in the first place. It remains unclear if Jaslyn is aware that Lara was in the car that killed her mother, but it appears that she’s not.
In New York the next morning, Jaslyn walks around the West Village. She finds Pino in a coffee shop. The two get to talking, and Jaslyn can tell right away that they will spend the day together like this, talking and eating before going back to his hotel and making love.
There is a sense of serendipity at play in Jaslyn and Pino’s blossoming relationship, a natural coming together of two previous strangers that reminds us of the novel’s interest in uniting people in unexpected ways.
Ten years ago, Jaslyn went to the Bronx to visit the spot under the expressway where her mother and grandmother used to work. On her way, though, she got snarled in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Sitting perfectly still in the road, she noticed a strange movement ahead: a man’s head coming up through the sunroof of a limousine. Then she noticed that other drivers had gotten out of their cars and were all looking at something. Finally she saw it: a coyote weaving its way through the cars, far from the woods. It passed her and she watched it in the rearview, thinking how strange it was that the animal was headed into—not out of—the city. Soon she saw Animal Control advancing and heard the crack of a rifle.
As Jaslyn tries to retrace and understand her mother’s brief life, she is met with an element of the extraordinary. The fact that the coyote is walking toward—rather than away from—the city seems to suggest the magnetic pull New York is capable of, and this magnetic pull reflects Jaslyn’s own inability to stay away from the place that defined her mother’s life. It is telling that when she hears the rifle, she does not see the coyote fall, much like how Marcia doesn’t see the culmination of the tightrope walker’s journey. This way, she can perhaps imagine a different ending.
Sure enough, Jaslyn and Pino return to his hotel room and make passionate but tentative love. Afterward, they lie motionless in a meaningful silence.
In addition to the serendipity inherent in their relationship, Pino and Jaslyn’s convergence takes on a clear inevitability as they fulfill their desires.
Jaslyn returns to Claire’s apartment. On the floor outside the door there is a newspaper bearing images of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The headline announces eighteen dead soldiers.
This apartment has been the setting for much war-related grief, and now, over three decades after Joshua died in Vietnam, more of Claire’s loved ones are involved in a new war that, much like the Vietnam War, is messy and complicated and highly controversial.
Inside, the nurse tells Jaslyn that Tom is sleeping and that he has been having little parties while staying at Claire’s. Apparently, he has also been showing the apartment to real estate agents.
This information about Tom confirms his ulterior motives to sell Claire’s apartment for a personal profit. It is clear that he is using his aunt for her wealth, assuming that she is a stereotypical senile woman unaware of her financial situation.
Jaslyn enters Claire’s room and watches the old woman’s body rise and fall with each breath. Claire opens her eyes and says nothing, but she moves her left hand as if she is playing the piano. It is dark in the room, though a sliver of light falls through a break in the curtains. Jaslyn gently climbs onto the mattress and lies beside Claire. She hears a clock ticking and a fan whirring, feels the soft suggestion of a breeze coming through the window. She remains motionless next to Claire. And she feels, she thinks, the world spinning.
The novel ends during this tender moment, which ultimately highlights the great aliveness of the world: the ticking clocks, the purring fan, the gentle breeze. In this way, we feel intimations of all the lives unfurling simultaneously across the globe, in addition to the phantom presence of each character as he or she moves throughout and beyond the pages of Let the Great World Spin.