Book Review: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

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And with this, the first title in the Great Summer Reading Program has now been knocked off! This title was also read for the June edition of the Critical Era Book Club. I had not read The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, so I had no idea what to expect from him going into The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. I also stayed thoroughly clear from reading any reviews or opinions of it since I wanted to find out for myself, and after hearing varying opinions of The Imperfectionists, I wanted to go in to this one and form my own opinion of Rachman’s work.

There were many words running through my head while reading this story: confusion (for the greatest part), disbelief, frustration and sadness (for Tooly), but overall, I do have to say this was one of the most compelling reads I’ve read this year. I could not put this one down, no matter how frustrated I became with many of the people in it at many times. When I came to the final chapters however, all my confusion, frustration and disbelief disappeared and I became upset only because my time was coming to an end with this story. What a wonderfully spun tale of discovering who you are and how those relationships with the people in your life shape you and your identity.

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.(from Random House)

Tooly (Matilda) Zylberberg fell into owning an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside after years of travelling the world in what the reader will find to be one of the most unconventional upbringings for a young child to undergo. Currently, she employees (just barely and out of her own and dwindling savings) a guy that will become one of the most beloved characters (as he was for me) in this book. Fogg will completely warm your heart and make you smile every time he appears. Their relationship was the one of the best ones in this story and I absolutely loved every interaction they had together.

In The Rise & Fall of Great Powers you are transported in time from 2011, to 1988, 1999 and 2000 as Tooly takes us on her journey fraught with a host of predominantly despicable and unreliable characters. The summary above does give you a great deal of information, and yet it really does not, all at the same time. And that is precisely how you will feel the entire time while reading this book. When you think you have become so confused that it frustrates you to no end, the story pulls itself all together beautifully. Almost to the point of tears, and for certain a very lasting impression of sadness for Tooly.

Tooly is first taken by a man she only ever refers to as Paul – is this indeed her father? She is whisked away to Bangkok by Paul and while there is again taken by a woman referred fleetingly to as her mother. Sarah is as flighty and unreliable as they come and her reasons for taking Tooly have nothing to do with her well being or any maternal instinct. Sarah takes Tooly for reasons only due to an infatuation with an elusive charmer named Venn. Sarah never does take care of Tooly ever and is barely around, leaving Tooly to be watched over, in a very haphazard manner, by Humphrey. Venn is the charismatic charmer that leaves a trail of women in his wake and is also the mastermind in these global money-making schemes. These schemes and Venn’s “training” become for Tooly what she feels is her way of life, and how she is to form relationships and interact with everyone around her. Whenever she does get to see Venn, she excitedly talks about some “big project” she wants to plan so they can pull it off together. And then, one day, Venn disappears, but still leaves Tooly believing he is the one responsible for ensuring and looking after her well-being.

It is not until a former boyfriend calls to say he needs her to come back to the US to help with her father that Tooly even gives any real consideration to her past. And by father Tooly wonders, which father does he mean? From the moment she lands back into her old life, Tooly questions everything about her entire upbringing, why she was taken, how these people fit into her life and starts a search for Venn so that the answers to the many, many questions she has that have confused her for so long can be answered. Here she slowly pieces together what these people truly mean and meant to her and the consequences of this upbringing to how they and it have shaped her life and her identity. Here, she finds the truth in why her mother took her, why her father didn’t make any attempt at contact after that time and how Venn and Humphrey truly fit into her life, and how they ultimately shaped the person she became.

“You really affected my life, she said. “Everything I chose to do, how I am now. I think you changed me more than anyone I ever met.” (pg. 348- Tooly to Venn)

“I’m in the same place as my favorite person I knew. For nearly all of existence, before and after now – nearly all of it – I don’t get to be with you. But now I am. I even helped you a bit in your life.” (pg. 350- Humphrey to Tooly)

Often very confused which led to frustration with the people and the casualness with which they interacted with each other while reading, I found that after thinking about it (and for days and days after finishing!) I realized that perhaps Rachman wanted us to discover and find the answers to Tooly’s past in the exact same manner and at the same time as it was being revealed to her? For, how frustrating and confusing it must have been for this young girl to be taken (twice really) and not be able to piece together any truths at all within the snippets of conversations she overhead when growing up. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is definitely one of the most compelling books I’ve read this year and one I found I had a great deal of trouble putting down. Finally, I am starting to get to these page burners to transform my 2014 reading year into one that no longer seems lost in mediocrity. 4.5 stars.

It is a genuine shame that this will be one of those times we are unable to speak with the author for the Critical Era Book Club. For here is one where I really, really would have loved to hear this author speak about his book.  As I mentioned above, the opinions on Rachman’s debut, The Imperfectionists, widely vary. I also just learned that it is written as a set of linked stories. It’s also a book that seems to have ratings of the “absolutely hated” swinging way over to the “absolutely loved” with not too many sitting in-the-middle. And, as some have mentioned while reading The Rise & Fall of Great Powers that this was “no Imperfectionists” for them, means I may have to reach for it sooner than later so that I may form my own opinion.

Literary Hoarders Penny rev