One morning on Park Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Claire Soderberg prepares to host a group of women. Her husband Solomon, after bringing her breakfast in bed, has already left for work. From the window she watches him hail a taxi. She considers the fact that he doesn’t know about the visitors she is about to have, thinking that perhaps she will tell him over dinner when he returns home that evening. “Guess what, Sol,” she imagines saying to him, and then she imagines his response: “Just tell me, Claire, honey—I’ve had a long day.”
For the second time in Let the Great World Spin, we are taken without warning into a new story, a technique that emphasizes the feeling that New York City contains a great many lives existing simultaneously. In the opening phrases of this chapter, it quickly becomes clear that, though Claire loves her husband, there is a certain strain on their relationship that perhaps hinders open communication.
Claire nervously readies herself and the house. She considers the streak of grey in her hair, which she has grown to like. She applies her makeup and chooses a dress. Again, she thinks about her husband Solomon. She thinks about when she first met him at Yale, when he had a full head of hair. When he was a junior counsel in Hartford he used to go on walks with the poet Wallace Stevens. He would then come home and make love to Claire. She reminisces about the days when she used to accompany him to court, watching him act as a judge. Now she dislikes doing so because she doesn’t want to hear the people making remarks about him. She considers the fact that on his desk at work there is a picture of her with their son Joshua. At the thought of her son, her breath is momentarily taken away.
It is immediately clear that Claire and Solomon are, in contrast to the characters of the previous chapter, quite wealthy. It also becomes clear, though, that this wealth does not spare them from various emotional stressors. Claire appears stuck in the past, wishing to relive her long gone halcyon days. Her strong reaction to the thought of her son speaks to this desire to rewind time, for it seems there is something in her past about her son that Claire wishes she could change.
The women who are about to visit Claire are part of a group of mothers who have lost sons in the Vietnam War. Claire has been to each of their houses, all of which were simple, ordinary homes. The last meeting took place at a woman named Gloria’s apartment in the government housing projects of the Bronx. Claire was horrified by the building and atmosphere of the projects, but when she entered the actual apartment, she found that Gloria kept it simple and clean. When it came time for the group to discuss their next meeting, Claire was embarrassed to tell them her address. Uncomfortable, she started rambling and trying to make it seem like she wasn’t rubbing her wealth in their faces until Gloria interjected—much to Claire’s delight—to diffuse the tension, saying, “Hell’s bells, Park Avenue, I’ve only ever been there for Monopoly!”
The mention of Gloria’s apartment in the Bronx, however tangential, connects Claire’s story to Corrigan’s. Claire’s embarrassment about telling the other women her address reveals that she is very conscious of social and economic class, and the fact that it is Gloria—a black woman living the Bronx’s government housing projects—who saves her from total humiliation by cutting her off brings to the forefront the uncomfortable idea that it is the poor or underserved people—not the wealthy ones—who are often expected to alleviate the guilt of their more fortunate friends.
Upon leaving Gloria’s apartment at the last meeting, the four white women walked to the subway while fearfully grasping their purses. Claire looked up and saw Gloria waving from her eleventh-floor apartment; she wanted to run up and take Gloria with her, saving her from the housing projects. The women took the subway together—it was only Claire’s second time doing so—and then parted ways. As she walked from the train to her apartment, she wondered why she ever decided to meet with all these women who are so different than her, but then she reminded herself that she likes them and that she has nothing against anyone. This reminded her of a racist phrase her father uttered when she was a teenager; when she expressed her anger toward this sort of language, he hugged her and called her modern.
The divide between rich and poor—and between white and black—is strongly felt in this passage. What the women feel in relation to Gloria’s apartment—guiltily wealthier—is what Claire feels in relation to the rest of the women’s societal positions. As such, Claire internally alienates herself from the group, despite the fact that she likes them and wants their acceptance. She is devoted, it seems, to transcending the expected boundaries that inherently accompany her wealth, and she has been committed to doing so since she was a teenager railing against her father’s racism.
As she waits for the women to arrive at her house, Claire reminds herself that she needn’t worry so much about what the other women will think of her home. After all, it’s only an apartment. But then she remembers that they will encounter the doorman downstairs. She worries that he will mistake her friends for maids and direct them to the service elevator. Rushing to the phone, she calls down to the doorman and tells him to make sure her friends get in the correct elevator.
Much of Claire’s self-consciousness regarding her wealth has to do with how she thinks other people will perceive her. In this moment, she clearly thinks her friends will dislike her when they find out how extravagantly she lives. Although she tries so hard to not be classist, though, she ironically undervalues and underestimates the doorman’s competency by doubting his ability to correctly do his job.
Claire continues to nervously fuss over preparing the apartment. For a moment she thinks again about Gloria, wondering half-heartedly if she could perhaps hire her friend to do odd jobs so that they could sit together at the table making gin and tonics and relaxing, keeping each other company.
Claire finds herself unwittingly playing into the stereotype that the only way for a black woman from the Bronx to spend time on Park Avenue is if she is a cleaner. This shows that, despite her best intentions, Claire is naïve—even offensively so—when it comes to bridging cultural gaps.
As she prepares the tea, Claire thinks about Joshua, who was in Vietnam as a computer programmer tasked with counting the number of men who died in the war. She tells herself that she “can’t indulge this heartsickness,” and just then, as she’s preparing the coffee and tea, the buzzer rings, yanking her from her sad reminiscing.
The women enter the apartment in a rush, all paying attention to Marcia, who is clearly troubled by something. Sitting in the living room, they all ask her what the matter is. “Man in the air!” she exclaims. “A man in the air, walking.”
For the first time, the novel explicitly circles back to the tightrope walker. In doing so, we begin to feel that perhaps this event is what might relate the otherwise tangential elements of the book.
It turns out that, on her way to Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry, Marcia saw the tightrope walker as he walked between the buildings on the wire. She is deeply upset, and the women try to console her while also asking questions. While Marcia tells the story in overwhelmed gasps, two of the women—Janet and Jacqueline—bicker back and forth, periodically telling one another to shush. This puts a strain on Claire as a hostess, who is otherwise relieved that the situation has ushered her guests into the living room so smoothly, ultimately avoiding their embarrassing comments about the lavish apartment. Still, Marcia continues, saying that all she could think about was the idea that perhaps the man she was looking at—the tightrope walker—was actually her son coming to say hello.
It’s not surprising that, even amid the chaos, Claire thinks about how she is coming off as a hostess. Her insecurities are quite strong, capable even of pervading her thoughts in moments of intense distraction. With Marcia’s comment about her son, it becomes clear that the tightrope walker is a highly symbolic figure for these women, who are perhaps desperately searching to find reason in their sons’ untimely deaths. Because the Vietnam War was so controversial, it is natural that these mothers might feel they lost their sons for no good reason, and so they are eager to find meaning elsewhere.
Marcia explains that when the ferry docked, she dashed onto land, running frantically down various side streets to try to see the tightrope walker. Unable to find a good vantage point, she suddenly stopped running, halting in the middle of the street. She stopped, she explains, because she didn’t want to know if the “boy” fell.
Marcia’s story proposes an important line of inquiry: sometimes uncertainty is more emotionally helpful—more beautiful—than reality. Without knowing the real story, she is free to imagine whatever ending might best help her cope with her son’s death.
As the conversation lulls, Claire goes to put flowers (which Gloria brought) in water. She finds herself vaguely unsettled by the thought of the tightrope walker, though she doesn’t fully understand why. When she returns to the living room, the women are gone. At first she is bewildered by their disappearance, but then she realizes that she left the door open to the roof and that the women have climbed the stairs and congregated atop the building. They are trying to see the tightrope walker, but the Twin Towers are too far away, too obscured by other structures.
For a moment, Claire’s insecurities as a hostess manifest themselves, and she is physically isolated from the rest of the group. Even though the women didn’t actually leave, it remains the case that they left her behind, a fact that surely contributes to her feeling of being an outsider even within her own group of friends.
Back in the living room, Janet asks them if they think the tightrope walker fell. They rebuke her for her morbidity, but the question hangs in the air. Claire wishes momentarily to be somewhere else, someplace where she could be close to Solomon and Joshua. She realizes that, though Marcia’s flustered state ushered the women smoothly into the apartment, it also distracted them from the point of their visit: to talk about Joshua. Claire starts to daydream, and when the other women call her back to attention, she tells them that she was thinking about the man who came to tell her that Joshua had died. Suddenly everything reorients itself, and the conversation flows naturally toward the topic of Joshua and about Claire’s experience as a grieving mother.
Though they scold her for saying it, Janet speaks the question that is clearly on everybody else’s mind, and this is why the other women react so strongly to her question: it is an articulation of their own fears and an acknowledgement of the fact that, in the same way that all of their sons died, things in life often end terribly. In addition, Claire once again considers her role as a hostess, but this time she does so with more self-interest, and she finally puts her scattered thoughts to use by voicing what she really wants to talk about: her son. This is the first time that she acts truly on her own behalf, rather than considering what the others think of her.
As she tells the women about Joshua and about Solomon and about how hard it was to hear about her son’s death, Claire realizes what it is that bothers her about the tightrope walker’s walk: there are so many ways to die, especially in war, and yet here is this man being so reckless with his body. His carelessness seems, Claire thinks, to make her own son’s life cheap. She looks up at her friends and feels a new affinity with them. Standing, she tells them to come with her. “Let’s go see Joshua’s room,” Claire says.
Although the tightrope walker may have faith in himself, Claire and the other grieving mothers only have reason to doubt the crazy endeavor, because experience has shown them that life is precious and that the unspeakable can, in fact, happen to anyone. It is in realizing this that Claire begins to understand that her friends, rather than judging her, understand her pain.