6.07.2014

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers
I shouldn't have liked Tom Rachman's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. It's literary fiction. There isn't much plot to summarize. I've spent years ragging on literary fiction to anyone willing to talk books with me. (Because literary fiction tends to be very, very dull, for the most part.) But I picked up this book because it begins in a bookstore. I'm a sucker for bookstore settings.

Tooly Zylberberg's strange story is told in three sections. In 2011, we meet her at World's End Bookstore in Caergenog, Wales. Rachman then takes us back to 1988 and 1999 to meet Tooly at nine and twenty. Tooly Zylberberg has had an unusual childhood. For the first ten years of her life, Tooly grew up in various foreign postings with her father, Paul. Paul worked to update databases at US embassies. For reasons explained later in the book, they can't return to the States. In 1999, Tooly is in New York living with Humphrey, a Russian dissident who spends his hours playing chess and ping pong and reading. As the book rolls on, Tooly (and us) learn more about her past. The people who cared for her lied to her.

Tooly had three fathers and one mother. Her mother, Sarah, is very self-centered and neglectful. Paul kidnapped Tooly to protect her from her mother. Sarah found Paul and Tooly in Bangkok and spirited Tooly away. The reunion doesn't last long. Sarah disappears almost immediately and leaves Tooly with Venn (a conartist) and Humphrey (the dissident and autodidact). Over the next decade, Venn, Sarah, Humphrey, and Tooly criss-cross the globe. Venn teaches her how to talk her way into peoples houses. Humphrey teaches her about the Great Thinkers. Sarah teaches her how to manage peoples' moods. By the time she's 20, in 1999, Tooly has become a strange loner. She drifts through life, but it doesn't bother her much.

At 31, Tooly received a Facebook message from an old boyfriend, telling her that Humphrey is in decline. His condition is shocking. He has forgotten so much that it spurs her to reconnect with Venn, Sarah, and even Paul, to find out what really happened when she was younger.

And that's the plot. Tooly embarks on a quest of self-discovery. What I loved about this book was the graceful way Rachman reveals a lifetime of truths. I adored the idiosyncratic Humphrey, especially his comments on books, like this one:
"Books," he said, "are like mushrooms. They grow when you are not looking. Books increase by rules of compound interest: one interest leads to another interest, and this compounds into third. Next, you have so much interest there is no space in closet." (From the advanced reader Kindle edition.)
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers has beautiful, unique characters. Even the villains are fascinating. I shouldn't have enjoyed this book, but I did. It's a weird, eccentric book. It's about people and their baggage—and their books. It shows how we are shaped by the people who raised us, for good or ill.

The official review part of this post is over, but I wanted to share one more quote:
People kept their books, [Tooly] thought, not because they were likely to read them again but because these objects contain the past—the texture of being oneself at a particular place, at a particular time, each volume a piece of one's intellect, whether the work itself has been loved or despised or had induced a snooze on page forty.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 10 June 2014. 

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