Tom Rachman managed to span twenty-three years in the course of one average sized novel, and he did it with attention to detail, well-developed characters, and a story interesting enough that the time skips and back-and-forths were were necessary rather than bothersome.
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is the story of Matilda “Tooly” Zylberberg who was raised by a single father who guarded her as if she were the most precious thing in the world even as he traveled around the world for his government job. Paul Zylberberg has very good reasons for making his preteen live a rambling life (and to mention them here would be to spoil the story) but it isn’t the best life for a preteen girl. Tooly craves stability and long-lasting friendship.
And she finds it in a trio of murky characters who fold her into their lives for their own, individual reasons. Sarah is flighty and unreliable, and mostly desperate to have the things she’s told she cannot have. Venn is a high-living manipulator willing to take advantage of any opportunity that offers him more money. And Humphrey is hiding beneath a thick Russian accent and a library-sized collection on non-fiction books. The three of them become the things that shape Tooly’s life, for better and for worse. She’s taught, in turn, how to fend for herself and how to take advantage of unsuspecting people who might otherwise mean something to her.
It’s only when she’s cut off from Sarah and Venn, and leaves Humphrey of her own accord, and impulse buys a failing bookstore in a tiny Welsh village that Tooly realizes she can be her own person and that person can be whoever she wants to be. She evolves from the means to an end for others to be her own defining means and end. She stands up for herself, she makes her own friends, and she becomes the one to take care of others. And she even falls in love.
This novel is a roller coaster of emotions. The minor characters are easy to relate to and the secondary characters will provoke something in any reader; I wanted to punch Venn and I cried for Humphrey. And Tooly? Tooly is a heroine in this story in that she is beset by obstacles she did not create for herself and she overcomes them. It isn’t easy for her and it isn’t easy to read.
But it is worth it.
The best line from The Rise & Fall of Great Powers?
“People kept their books, she thought, not because they were likely to read them again but because these objects contained 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 had been loved or despised or had induced a snooze on page forty.”
N.B. I received a copy of The Rise & Fall of Great Powersthrough NetGalley & Random House in exchange for an honest & original review. All opinions are my own.