Monday, June 9, 2014

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
Random House: 6/10/2014
Hardcover, 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780679643654

New York Times bestselling author Tom Rachman returns with a brilliant, intricately woven novel about a young woman who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.
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.
Tom Rachman—an author celebrated for humanity, humor, and wonderful characters—has produced a stunning novel that reveals the tale not just of one woman but of the past quarter-century as well, from the end of the Cold War to the dominance of American empire to the digital revolution of today. Leaping between decades, and from Bangkok to Brooklyn, this is a breathtaking novel about long-buried secrets and how we must choose to make our own place in the world. It will confirm Rachman’s reputation as one of the most exciting young writers we have.

My Thoughts:

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman is a highly recommended novel of suspense that follows Tooly Zylberberg through three decades and around the world. 

Opening in 2011, Tooly currently owns a used bookstore in the Welsh town of Caergenog. Tooly may be leading a quiet, hard drinking, book-filled life now, but her past was anything but ordinary. Normally she avoids talking about her childhood, but when an ex-boyfriend contacts her about a dying man he believes is her father, Tooly is given the impetus to examine her life and travel the world, again, in order to decipher what really happened to her in her childhood and maybe help her find some closure.  

In this coming-of-age story, the chapters jump from 1988, to 1999/2000, to 2011, following Tooly's life at ages 9, 20/21, and 32. Tooly's  globe trotting childhood that had her in Sydney, Bangkok, New York, and Wales. As she seeks to clarify the mystery of her childhood, you will need to pay close attention to the year you are in and keep a clear head about what has happened before in that year to follow the cast of characters and how they are influencing Tooly's life. 

It becomes clear that Tooly's childhood was less than ideal as she was traveling around Asia. What a child thinks is true can usually be quite different from the truth an adult construes based on the facts. Secrets that a child may not comprehend an adult can often interpret after the fact. Following the three different time periods in Tooly's life and the adults she was with show immediately why Tooly was scarred and who was trying to be nurturing to her, but greater revelations about motives come at the end of the novel. 

This is definitely a book that you need to keep your wits about you when reading to follow along the different time periods and characters. I'm going to have to admit that I never felt totally engrossed in Tooly's story in all the time periods, but still appreciated the structure Rachman chose to use to her story. 

It is a deliciously written book, however, which helps encourage reading and following the storylines. The prose often made up for other little parts I was not enjoying as much. There are some diverse, thought-provoking topics covered in The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, and he also covers the history and advances of the time periods neatly. And it can be sad.

“We’re like a lost tribe, people like us,” he mused. “No traditions, no birthright, to be brutally honest. All of us have an acorn of sadness,” he continued, pressing the magnifying glass to his eye. “You notice our tristesse only in passing, like a door to a small room in a house where outsiders may not enter.” (Location 601)

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Random House via Netgalley for review purposes.


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