Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review: The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers
By Tom Rachman
The Dial Press June 2014
384 pages
Read via Netgalley

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

Tooly Zylberberg is finally living a quiet and consistent life. As the owner of a small bookstore in Wales, her days are filled with books and thankfully little human interaction. Tooly avoids conversation when possible because conversation leads to questions and questions reveal that Tooly has answers she doesn't want to share. As a child, Tooly traveled the world in the company of a quartet of caregivers: Paul is a quiet computer genius who travels from country to country to set up computer systems for embassies; Sarah is a mysterious beauty with a penchant for disappearing; Humphrey is an elderly Russian man who adores reading and Tooly; and Venn is the cryptic and charismatic leader who orders all of their lives and then vanishes without a trace. Each of these adults had a profound effect on Tooly and when she is called to care for one of them, she is determined to find answers about who they are and who she is as a result of knowing them.

Tom Rachman's debut novel The Imperfectionists dazzled me completely and it was one of my favorite books of 2012. I have been waiting (im)patiently for another book and was thrilled to get the chance to read his newest novel. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is extremely different from its predecessor. The Imperfectionists casts a wide net and introduces its readers to the entire staff of a small Roman newspaper. We spend a chapter, or short story, with each characters and slowly understand the connections between them. Conversely, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is all about Tooly. While we spend time with each character who impacted her life, their importance is relative to Tooly's life and how she viewed each of them at different points.

I'm having a hard time putting my feelings about this book into words. At times, I felt like nothing was really happening and I was, I think, even more frustrated than Tooly at just how little she knew about herself and the people in her life. The story takes place in three timelines: her childhood, her twenties, and the present. Moving between the three time periods is precise, as each one segment gives us just a bit more information. Like Tooly, we are dropped into new landscapes with regularity and Mr. Rachman is able to make Bangkok, Manhattan, and Wales come to life with ease.

This book is about the way that history shapes us personally and collectively. While specific historical events certainly matter to the characters, the reader can really feel the weight of history with the giant changes between the world of Tooly as a child and the world she sees as an adult. Perhaps ironically, this book also focuses on the danger of learning about life and people from the pages of a book instead of from real life experiences.

In spite of my reservations, I finished the book and found myself happy that Tooly had made progress in discovering the truth about her past and embarking on her future. While The Rise and Fall of Great Powers can be tough to read while you are working through it, I suspect it is also a story that benefits from multiple readings. A second or third read will illuminate the clues you missed during the first time and give you added insight to Tooly's past and our own connections with each other. This strange bunch of characters has been on my mind often since finishing this story and I think they will be living there for quite a while. 


  1. This book sounds so interesting--and so complex! I just popped over to your review of The Imperfectionists. I'm probably going to add that one to my TBR pile. Thanks for the reviews!

    1. I'm so glad. The Imperfectionists is one of those books I want to hand to everyone and say, "please, please read this!"

  2. I'm not too sure about this second book, but I am going to check out The Imperfectionists further and see if it is a match for me. Thanks for introducing me to an author I didn't know about.