Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers


I had the privilege of "discovering" Tom Rachman several years ago when I was given his first novel, "The Imperfectionists," to review for "Library Journal." There's a courageous element to pronouncing on a book for the readers of LJ. We reviewers see the author's work in its very first iteration, long before publicists have rolled out the advertising machine. Our words may help a librarian decide whether or not to spend money from a dwindling collection development budget on a particular book. We really want to get it right. If, several months later, I see a great review of something I took a chance on, in say, "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post," I feel deeply gratified.

All that is to say that I loved "The Imperfectionists," (and highly recommend it), but I can only say that I liked Rachman's very different second novel, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." I found it to be just as beautifully written and  wildly imaginative as his first, but it was simply too melancholy for me at this particular point in my life.

Note to readers! Please don't let my aversion to melancholy keep you from meeting the wonderfully quirky folks in this novel.

Literature lovers will immediately be entranced by the main character, the delightful, lovable, Tooly Zylberberg, who owns a wonderful, dusty old bookstore in Wales. She and her only other employee, the equally enjoyable Fogg, read all day long, happy for a customer's tell-tale ring of the bell, but not necessarily disappointed when none show up.

The problem is that the action doesn't take place in the bookstore. Rachman takes us back and forth over three decades, from Europe to Asia and New York, to illustrate Tooly's complicated backstory. How did this little girl, taken from school at the age of ten years old, become such a deep reader, thinker, and book lover? In one word? Loneliness.

You see, Tooly was first raised by a disconsolately lonely man named Paul. He'd wake her in the morning by shaking her hand. Parenthood, it seemed, was not his strong suit. Every year they moved to a new country and Tooly would have to adjust to a different school. By the time they set down in Thailand Tooly scarcely remembered what grade she was in. Books were her only friends.

Through bizarre happenstance, Tooly lands in the midst of a group of grifters, the fickle Sarah, the charismatic leader, Venn, and an old soul named Humphrey. With them she moves from city to city, always unsure who will be there in the morning, how and when she might eat, her only education coming from long, heated discussions about literature with Humphrey.

Though she is resourceful, and somewhat manipulative, Tooly is also rather naïve.  The lack of love and stability in her life leaves her with little to offer others. Her relationships are shallow and unsatisfying but she scarcely notices. She seems to always be on the periphery of others' lives.

Can you want what you've never had? As a reader, I craved happiness for Tooly, though I know that one must be happy within in order to share that emotion with others. Through the wonders of the Internet, a former boyfriend tracks Tooly down and sets her on the long and winding road to self-discovery. Rachman deftly takes all the disparate pieces of his story and creates a deeply satisfying whole.

Now that I reflect on it, maybe I did love this novel just a bit. Have you read it? What did you think?

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