DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley from Random House Publishing Group/The Dial Press in exchange for an honest review.
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers
340 pages (ARC e-book)
Imagine if your past were a mystery. Not in a Samantha Who?/amnesiac kind of way, but in a Finding Carter/abduction kind of way. Finding Carter is a new show on MTV about a kid who was abducted when she was three years old. She grows up with a woman she believes is her mother (her wonderful, amazing, super loving mother). As a teenager, Carter gets arrested for normal teenage mischief. But, after getting fingerprinted in jail, the police discover she isn’t Carter after all; she’s little abducted Lyndon. Now, Carter/Lyndon finds herself back with her real family, people who are strangers and about whom she knows nothing. She misses the woman she knows as her mother and struggles to make sense of her identity:
Tom Rachman’s new book, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, follows a similar premise. Matilda “Tooly” Zylberberg owns a little bookshop in a small town in Wales. She’s not in touch with any of the adults from her past, she has no real relationships, and she avoids questions about her life . . . mostly because she wouldn’t know how to answer them.
Tooly has memories of the important adults in her life, like:
- Paul, with whom she lived a transitory life as a little kid, jumping from city to city and country to country about once a year. He would wake her with a handshake each morning, loved bird-watching, and made her watch wrestling (and debate its realism) with him;
- Sarah, the mysterious, beautiful, and flighty woman who showed up mysteriously when Tooly was nine (when Tooly and Paul were living in Bangkok) and began whisking her away for random adventures, like rides in tuk-tuks and her first sips of beer, and who later appeared and disappeared from her life at random;
- Humphrey, the old Russian guy who preferred books to people, introduced Tooly to coffee, chess, and smashed-potato sandwiches, educated Tooly by making her read a wide range of books, and whose speech was peppered with slightly faulty idioms (like “But I keep my eyes plucked” and “I wouldn’t believe, if I did not see it with my own ears”); and
- Venn, who called her “duck,” always made her feel like the most special person in the room, and with whom she felt a unique kinship.
But Tooly doesn’t know who these people really are, or how they came into her life. Her moves from place to place were something she always accepted as a child, but they now seem suspicious (if not sinister).
Then, one day, an ex-boyfriend finds her on Facebook, and her past comes flooding back. She finds herself traveling the world in an effort to make sense of it all. She searches for answers to the questions that she has done her best to avoid: Who are Paul and Sarah and Humphrey and Venn? How are they related to her? Are they really the people she thinks they are? Where is “home” and why was she forced to leave it?
The book hops among 1988 (when Tooly is a precocious kid, mostly in Bangkok, and says cute, little kid things like “and one thing else I was wondering”), 1999 (when Tooly is an unemployed young adult in New York City and has a habit of talking her way into strangers’ apartments), and 2011 (Tooly’s present day, beginning at her bookshop in Wales).
By meeting up with and talking frankly with people from her past and piecing together hints and memories from her childhood, little by little, Tooly uncovers the mystery of her past. Unfortunately, this story that is meant to be a big, suspenseful unraveling is fairly transparent early on.
But Rachman writes a nonlinear story with fun characters well. Despite jumping around in time from chapter to chapter, the book doesn’t feel choppy. And it is filled with a cast of quirky, multi-faceted characters.
- An Amazon Best Book of the Month (Literature & Fiction category) for June 2014
- A pick for the June 2014 Indie Next List
- Named one of Kirkus Reviews’ “NEW BOOKS DESTINED TO BECOME CLASSICS”
- One of New York Post’s “29 Best Books of the Summer”
Who should read it: If you read and enjoyed Rachman’s first book, The Imperfectionists, then you will probably like this one, too. Heather, this is a good one to add to your list of fun books to look for at the library.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- Lucky Us by Amy Bloom (an August 2014 LibraryReads List selection by the author of Away)
- Landline by Rainbow Rowell (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for July 2014; the #1 LibraryReads selection for July 2014; an Indie Next Pick for July 2014)