The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

by Tom Rachman

Overview: Tooly Zylberberg, the American owner of an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside, conducts a life full of reading, but with few human beings. Books are safer than people, who might ask awkward questions about her life. She prefers never to mention the strange events of her youth, which mystify and worry her still.

Taken from home as a girl, Tooly found herself spirited away by a group of seductive outsiders, implicated in capers from Asia to Europe to the United States. But who were her abductors? Why did they take her? What did they really want? There was Humphrey, the curmudgeonly Russian with a passion for reading; there was the charming but tempestuous Sarah, who sowed chaos in her wake; and there was Venn, the charismatic leader whose worldview transformed Tooly forever. Until, quite suddenly, he disappeared.

Years later, Tooly believes she will never understand the true story of her own life. Then startling news arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers.

Gail Reid (12/31/14): I looked forward to reading The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Tom Rachman's second novel, with great anticipation. His first, The Imperfectionists, one of my all time favorites, brought promise of another engaging read.

The story of Matilda "Tooly" Zylberberg, whose life careened back and forth around the world, with a host of real and pseudo-parents, is one that is mysterious and full of holes. At 31 and a bookstore owner settled in Wales, she is called back to New York after a 10-year absence to care for her ill and elderly "father."

What this trip instigates for Tooly is the chance to learn the back-story of her vagabond life and the characters who were family: Paul, her American father who may have stolen her from Sarah, her flighty mother from Kenya who stole her back; Venn, the Svengali-like figure who treated the young Tooly like a comrade; and Humphrey, the grandfather-like Russian whose presence was constant, no matter where in the world this motley band of characters were living.

This is a really strong story of discovery, with wonderfully developed characters, spot-on dialogue and much of what makes a book really shine. So why isn't it a "5" for me? Rachman chooses to tell this story through alternating chapters that unabashedly skip around in a non-linear path over 20 years. On the one hand, he is successful in that this structure fills in all the interesting and mysterious gaps in Tooly's life. On the other hand, the book is often difficult to follow. It's as if the chapters were thrown into the air and where they landed created the narrative. None of these minor complaints would keep me from reading Tom Rachman's next book.
Rating: ****

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