The Book We're Talking About: 'The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers' By Tom Rachman

The Book We're Talking About

The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers
by Tom Rachman
Dial Press, $27.00
Publishes June 10, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:
Tom Rachman’s excellent first novel, The Imperfectionists, bewitched the reading public, earning rave reviews and climbing bestseller lists. Informed by Rachman’s own years as a journalist in Rome, the book tracked the sordid conflicts, ambitions, and disappointments of an English-language newspaper bureau in Italy. Four years later, Rachman has a new, more ambitious offering with a similar cosmopolitan flavor. Like the first, The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers contains deft psychological insight and a poignant distillation of the rootless expatriate life, but the wider scope of the narrative seems too vast for his writing to fully carry.

The novel opens on Tooly Zylberberg’s rural Welsh bookshop, World’s End. Tooly, an American with no apparent social or familial ties, seems to relish the isolation of the shop, and its mounds of books, more than its business possibilities. However, an unexpected message from an ex-boyfriend rouses her from sleepy bucolic contentment. Humphrey, an elderly Russian expat who figured as a primary caregiver and companion in Tooly’s scattered youth, has suffered a brutal mugging and is recuperating in the squalor of a Brooklyn tenement, and she is unable to resist the pull of obligation -- and curiosity -- urging her to return to New York. But reconnecting with Humphrey is hardly a simple proposition; it forces Tooly to reopen old mysteries about the trio of mysterious travelers who swept her away from home at a young age, the rootless childhood that ensued, and the true identity of her family. The quest goads Tooly from New York to Italy to Ireland, seeking answers to questions she’s submerged for over 10 years.

Rachman’s tale unfolds, at first, slowly and deliberately, jumping around from present to past to further past as it stingily divulges clues to the mystery underlying Tooly’s chaotic childhood. The situation -- a young child traveling internationally with a band of merry con artists, to whom she appears to bear no family relation -- seems tantalizingly bizarre, and Rachman is careful to allow few hints as to the truth underlying this odd upbringing. The protagonist herself, though we see so much of her, is something of an enigma, with her quiet vices of alcohol and hermitism and her lack of apparent real attachments. Gradually, however, we begin to perceive the degree to which her enigmatic persona was wrought for her by the unsettling, charismatic figure who dictated her youthful travels and oversaw her care. Though Tooly acknowledges and believes she understands his influence, she begins to question whether the narrative she's told herself since childhood was at all accurate.

The novel labors, however, as it ambles toward the denouement; after a prolonged buildup, the big reveal is underwhelming, the big mysteries explained by various characters rather too neatly and drily. Indeed, Rachman begins to show a tendency toward telling rather than showing, perhaps as a practical measure to wrap up the rambling plot threads. But the tumble of exposition blunts the impact and crowds out more compelling elements -- deeper glimpses into Tooly's psyche as her quest progresses, or fuller characterizations of her old associates. The scope of the plot, possibly too ambitious, leaves insufficient room in the book for the carefully observed psychology and subtlety in which Rachman shines, and the prose occasionally appears hasty, unpolished. Much of the plot is accomplished in rather banal passages such as “Sarah’s absence, so scary at first, grew less troubling. Tooly’s days assumed a pleasant routine.”

Despite these shortfalls, Rachman is a talented writer, and though Great Powers sometimes feels too long, too over-explained, or too platitudinous, it’s also packed with lovely passages of observation, mournful humor, and bittersweet revelations about what it means to grow up, to come to terms with who you are and where you’ve come from. Above all, the novel is tremendously readable, with characters who often spark and jump off the page, and a central puzzle that grips you until the end. Following a debut hit like The Imperfectionists is a formidable challenge, and though Rachman's stretches here don't always succeed, they augur even greater work in the future.

What other reviewers think:
The Guardian: "Tom Rachman's second novel is a great jigsaw-puzzle of a book, spanning a quarter of a century and with its pieces scattered all over the world. Its heroine is Matilda Zylberberg, known as Tooly, and what aims to hook the reader in is not so much the possibility of finding out what happens as finding out what once happened."

A.V. Club: "For a novel that takes place on three different continents over a period of 30 years, Tom Rachman’s The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers is a surprisingly small story. That’s probably what makes it so good: Even with all the flights of fancy and exotic locales, the characters in it are beautifully human, even if half of them are con artists with Dickensian names."

Who wrote it?
Tom Rachman has published two novels. His debut, The Imperfectionists, was an international bestseller. Rachman has also worked for the Associated Press and The International Herald Tribune as a journalist. His writing has also appeared in publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian.

Who will read it?
Fans of suspenseful fiction and literary mysteries. Also, readers who enjoy travel-themed fiction.

Opening lines:
"His pencil wavered above the sales ledger, dipping toward the page as his statements increased in vigor, the pencil tip skimming the pad, then pulling up like a stunt plane, only to plunge at moments of emphasis, producing a constellation of increasingly blunt dots around the lone entry for that morning, the sale of one used copy of Land Snails of Britain by A. G. Brunt-Coppell (price: £3.50)."

Notable passage:
"The day before New Year's Eve, the city awoke white. A blizzard hit overnight and sanitation trucks plowed the streets at dawn, driving snow into gritty ranges that rose from the gutters and sank to the cleared sidewalks. Tooly strolled through the West Village, stepping between two parked cars on Hudson Street, up an icy hillock whose peak collapsed underfoot. She stamped her snowy sneakers on the pavement, causing the automatic glass doors of a residential building to part. Right past the doorman she went, with such confidence that he merely returned to his horoscope. On the ninth floor, she found a low-lit hallway, doors all the way down. One was ajar, and she entered.
"A man stood at the far end of the room, his back to her, gazing through floor-to-ceiling windows at the view of Manhattan.
"'Excuse me,' she said, hesitating in the doorway. 'So sorry to bother you, but--this might sound weird--but I actually grew up in this apartment. I happened to be walking by and was wondering, would it be insane if I asked maybe to peek inside? I'm getting a flood of memories even just standing here. Is that--'"

Rating, out of ten:
7. Rachman's sophomore effort is plagued by flat exposition, but still frequently sparkles with insight and excitement.

Read an excerpt of The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers:

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