I was highly impressed with Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists when I read it back at the beginning of 2011. When I saw the e-galley for The Rise and Fall of Great Powers come up for grabs on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to read it, and I’m so happy that I did.
In spirit, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers has much in common with one of my favorite novels from last year, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. When the novel opens, we meet Tooly, née Matilda Zylberberg, reading a biography of Anne Boleyn in her pub-turned-bookshop in Wales. (Interestingly, Rachman describes Tooly as slight and somewhat tomboyish, with a black-haired bob, so I pictured Tartt as the protagonist the whole time I was reading.) She is called away from Wales suddenly by an old boyfriend, Duncan, who has been caring for an elderly, ill man named Humphrey that he believes is her father.
Who Humphrey actually is to Tooly, and who the other adults are who shaped her unusual life, is revealed slowly by moving back and forth across three points in time: 2011 (labeled as “The Beginning”), 1999-2000, and 1988 (labeled as “The End”). We learn that Tooly was removed from her family as a child and was taken from place to place (continent to continent actually—from Australia to Asia) by a man named Paul, who worked for the government designing and implementing network security. We also learn that at some point she was somehow passed from Paul to group of Bohemian types that includes Humphrey as well as a con artist named Venn and a drifter named Sarah, and that she traveled with them from place to place (from Asia to Europe to the US) until she landed in New York City in 1999. At that point Tooly meets Duncan and begins a relationship with him, but she always believes that Venn will return for her so they can complete a “big project.”
In mostly non-romantic terms, Venn is the love of Tooly’s life. She has moulded herself in his image, adopted what she believes are his life tenets, and is always awaiting his return. In 2011, she has not heard from him in almost ten years. The journey back to New York to see about Humphrey unlocks questions and memories for Tooly, until eventually she is driven to find Paul, Sarah, and Venn to understand exactly who they are, who Humphrey is, and most of all who she is herself.
I’ve seen some descriptions online about this being a book about a bookseller. If you’re looking to read this book because you think it’s going to be about that, then let me set you straight: the bookstore has almost nothing to do with the primary story at hand, although books are an important part of Tooly’s life and especially her bond with Humphrey (and also her bond with her only employee, Fogg). The frequent mentions of Dickens in this novel, as well as its circuitous plot, are also earning this novel the term “Dickensian,” which I suppose it is, in the best sense. Tooly, though, like a lot of bookish people, confuses being well-read with being worldly. In other words, even through all of her travels, most of what she has learned about the world, and the ways in which she evaluates and understands people in her life, comes from what she’s learned from reading novels. This both helps and hurts her, because while she’s intelligent, her reactions to people as characters often keeps her from understanding what is really happening in the relationships she forms.
The book gets off to a slow start, and at times the chapters that cover Tooly’s girlhood in Bangkok drag a little bit, but nothing ever slows so much it actually stalls. Rachman does a terrific job of letting out little bits and pieces of information, feeding us clues about Tooly’s life and the people in it that she fails to pick up herself, so even as the nature of her relationships becomes fully clear to Tooly herself we are also still grasping the full truth. Some people who found The Goldfinch too long and/or implausible might actually prefer The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. It’s not without its own gaps and hiccups, but as much as I loved The Goldfinch, I liked Tooly better than I liked Theo if for no other reason than she is far less prone to navel-gazing, self-pity, and self-destruction.
Highly recommended. Four out of five stars.
*image from Random House; I received my copy of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers from NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion