Tom Rachman’s novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, is both funny and melancholy. Rachman, following the great acclaim of his debut, The Imperfectionists, considers the importance of human connectedness and relationships in his second novel. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers offers an intriguing puzzle for readers to piece together, as they follow the protagonist’s efforts to unravel her confusing past and make her place in the world.
The Story: The story here is . . . quite difficult to summarize! Indeed, that it is part of the point. Rachman begins the novel in a dusty used bookshop called World’s End in the tiny Welsh village of Caergenog. The shop’s thirty-something owner, Tooly Zylberberg, lives a quiet life centered on books and isolated from people, and sublimating thoughts of her unusual past. A message from Duncan, an old boyfriend in New York, however, jolts her out of her self-imposed solitude; he tells Tooly that her father is very sick and she must come to the States. “Her father?” Tooly wonders. “Whom could he mean?”
Tooly, it emerges, experienced a bizarre and peripatetic childhood, moving to different cities across globe every year. Rachman shifts the action from Tooly’s present in 2011, to Bangkok in 1988, where Tooly is a precocious ten-year-old living with a nervous man named Paul who may or may not be her father, and then to 1999 in New York City, where a twenty-ish Tooly shares living quarters with Humphrey, a charming, elderly Russian man, and seeks to meet up with a mysterious, and possibly criminal, fellow named Venn. Rachman leaps back and forth between these time periods, as both Tooly and the reader seek to fit the pieces together and understand Tooly’s identity and past.
What I Thought: The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is a good read, if not as utterly captivating as I had hoped. I enjoyed trying to follow the threads of the story and unsnarl the mysteries in Tooly’s past. My attention began to flag as I reached about the three-quarters mark, however. Tooly herself never felt fully fleshed out to me, never entirely believable as a character, which made it harder to care intensely about her identity.
Nevertheless, I loved the ending, which packed an unintended and satisfying emotional punch. Rachman cleverly addresses the necessity of human relationships and interconnectedness. To put it another way, he makes the point that people DO, in fact, need people (cue the Broadway music—do you know the song “People” from the 1960s musical Funny Girl? I couldn’t help but think of Barbra Streisand belting out, “People who need people ... are the luckiest people in the world!" as I read the novel. My household includes a teen obsessed with musical theater, and we often comment that there is a Broadway song that applies to every emotion or situation; “People” certainly fits the bill here).
I would rate The Rise & Fall of Great Powers about a 3.5 out of 5 stars, and I would certainly like to read Rachman’s first novel and his future books.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Random House, through a Goodreads giveaway, in return for an honest review.