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The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom…
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The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

by Tom Rachman

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The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is the second novel by Tom Rachman. His first novel, The The Imperfectionists: A Novel, was a New York Times bestseller and I enjoyed reading it very much. This book is organized in self-contained blocks of time that have an intricate but seamless structure. The time periods are related to three decades in the life of Tooly Zyberberg: childhood, young adulthood, and full personhood. The calendar anchors are 1988, 2000, and 2011, and the reader falls in love with the developing Tooly in the context of economic hardship, the Millennium, and social evolution.

Tooly's first two decades of life are periods of unique experience and learning that are guided by Paul, Sarah, Venn, and Humphrey. Paul is a globe-trotting computer consultant introvert who anxiously obeys rules and consistently anticipates social problems, largely avoiding people. Sarah travels the continents with money from an undisclosed source disregarding customs of behavior engaging in eccentric self-indulgent behavior. Venn is a tough character always looking for an angle to use people to enhance his personal power and financial independence. Humphrey is an old impoverished curmudgeon who also travels, reveres books, plays chess, has a Russian accent, and relies on himself for freedom of thought and behavior. All four of these characters interact with Tooly on an intermittent and apparently random basis making it difficult for her to understand her place in the world. They seem to possess her for a time, then abandon her. Tooly's self-esteem is weak, her personal attractiveness is average, and her origins are mysterious leaving her puzzled by her own existence. She often feels like a window: she looks out and others look through her finding nothing of lasting interest. Even when she is presented with exciting opportunities, like Ryabovitch in Chekhov's The Kiss, Tooly feels she has no substance and unworthy of loving attention.

Readers learn along with Tooly about her personality through the three time blocks in scenes that frequently jump from one period to the other. The novel's structure is puzzling at first, but the vignettes are well-written and complete in and of themselves. Gradually, Tooly's character takes shape and the scenes of her life become connected. We get a full picture of the girl, thankfully without the utterly boring causal descriptions of psychological influences inserted into many contemporary novels. Rachman has written a novel about a fully alive person that readers can enjoy and learn from as she makes her decisions in true, not pre-planned or predictable, existential freedom. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel and recommend it highly to anyone willing to go beyond the behavioral determinism that is the structure of many coming of age novels. ( )
  GarySeverance | Apr 22, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Tooly Zylberberg is a young bookstore owner living in the Welsh countryside when we first meet her. However, besides her occupation, we know little about who she is until Rachman gradually begins to fill in her backstory, flashing back to 1988, when she was in elementary school in a variety of locations around the world, and to 1999-2000, when she was turning 21 in New York City. The murkiness of Tooly's past extends to the identity of her parents and to her relationship with a number of the recurring individuals from her past. Rachman takes his time revealing how Tooly's past fits together and how it continues to impact her as an adult.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. The weaving together of the three time periods kept me engaged as details of Tooly's life were revealed. Tooly herself was a sympathetic, but real main character, and her reactions to her unpredictable life felt spot on to me. I was often frustrated with the adults in Tooly's life, although I have to respect Rachman's ability to invoke so much emotion in me. By far, my favorite part of this book was Tooly's relationship with an older Russian gentleman, Humphrey, who came in and out of her life, but nonetheless made a huge impact on her. At first, I was frustrated that Rachman didn't spend more time on this relationship, but perhaps that was a conscious choice as Tooly herself didn't seem to realize the importance of this relationship in her life.

I'm afraid that this book may suffer from the comparison with Rachman's first book The Imperfectionists. I loved that book for its tight interwoven chapters - each of which could almost stand alone as a short story. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is less tightly written, more of a meandering stroll through a life that has taken its share of twists and turns. I appreciated it on its own merits, but it didn't quite live up to the uniqueness of The Imperfectionists. ( )
  porch_reader | Apr 21, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Tom Rachman is a gifted story teller, who can drag you along from chapter to chapter even if you are bored or sleepy. He did that in The Imperfectionists and he does it again in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: while reading, I kept saying to myself: “Maybe I’ll read just a few pages more.” And then, the novel was finished—where did the time go?

Rise and Fall is the story of Tooly. We meet her in 2011 as a 32 year old owner of a nearly bankrupt bookstore in Wales near Hay-on-Wye (site of the famous book festival). Tooly and her assistant Fogg are looking at the sales ledger. Then, in the very next chapter, it is 1999 and we find ourselves in New York: Tooly is a naive 20-year-old small-time criminal who is thinking of scamming Duncan, a guileless law student. And then in the 3rd chapter, it is 1988: Tooly is 10 years old, and she is packing to fly from Australia to Bangkok, Thailand with her father, Paul. (Unknown to Tooly, Paul has kidnapped her from her dysfunctional mother.)

In Bangkok, Tooly’s unstable mother, Sarah, appears. Sarah is under the spell of Venn, who is a callus, handsome rogue. Sarah and Venn have sinister plans for Tooly, but a Russian chess-playing bibliophile named Humphrey enters the story to take Tooly’s side. We’re just starting to read and the novel has become unbelievably complicated. The story goes on chapter-by-chapter until these threads of Tooly’s life converge in New York City.

Somehow, Rachman moulds this unlikely cast of characters into a true ensemble, and by the final chapter we know Tooly’s story and have a glimpse of her possible future. Nice work, the narrator has tied up all the loose ends of this rambling novel. My only problem with the novel is that I don’t really care for Tooly, and Venn, while never being abusive, is too evil for me to enjoy— my favorite character is Fogg, Tooly’s assistant at World’s Books. He is destined for greatness.

Yes, I liked this novel and recommend it to those readers who like rich characterizations and fast-paced storytelling.

Carto ( )
  cartoslibrary | Apr 21, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
For me, there were simply too many "down the rabbit hole" moments in this book to enjoy it. There are numerous locales, bizarre characters and a fluctuating timeline that eventually come together to explain Tooly's life, but by the time that happened, I had tired of reading this book. It never fully engaged my interest. ( )
  pdebolt | Apr 21, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This was an odd book. First there is the structure which flips around back and forth between 1988 and 1999 and 2000 and 2011. I can handle that, especially when each skip is headlined at the top of the chapter. But I am not convinced that this wasn't simply a clever device to keep my attention -- because a chronological telling of this story would not have sustained enough interest.
The main character, Tooly (a nickname for Matilda) is 10 years old in 1988, living with Paul (we are not certain who Paul is) in Thailand. Later she lives with other people at various places around the world, their relationship to her also a mystery throughout most of the book. As she grows up, she lives her life in imitation of -- and in hopes of pleasing -- those who have indoctrinated her, mainly people who live only for themselves. There are many pages of these various characters going on about their personal philosophies.
I hope this reader can be forgiven for often wondering what the purpose of this ramble was -- and why I should care. Tooly seems on a quest to figure out where all the people fit. Toward the end all is suddenly explained for her and the reader. As for what happens to Tooly? I did not believe it -- but it was more a yawn than a surprise. ( )
  AnneWK | Apr 17, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385676956, Hardcover)

The New York Times and Globe & Mail-bestselling author of The Imperfectionists returns with an intricately woven novel about a bookseller who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.
     Tooly Zylberberg tells a story: as a child, she was stolen from home, stashed at a den of thieves, then adopted by crooks there, who ended up raising her and even using the little girl in capers around the globe. But Tooly understands only fragments of what happened in Thailand, Italy, New York and beyond. Then, a desperate message reaches her musty bookshop in Wales, and she is lured into a journey that will reveal the secret of her childhood. Celebrated for his ingenious plotting, humanity and humor, Tom Rachman has written a novel that will amplify his reputation as one of the most exciting young writers today.

(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 10 Jan 2014 17:56:13 -0500)

For fans of Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, and Donna Tartt--the brilliant, intricately woven new novel by Tom Rachman, author of "The Imperfectionists, "one of the most critically acclaimed fiction debuts in years Following one of the most critically acclaimed fiction debuts in years, "New York Times" bestselling author Tom Rachman returns with a brilliant, intricately woven novel about a young woman trying to piece together the puzzle of her mysterious childhood. 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.… (more)

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