The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel

3.6 8
by Tom Rachman

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NPR • The Seattle Times • The Globe and Mail • Kirkus Reviews • Daily Mail • The Vancouver Sun

For fans of Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, and Donna Tartt—the brilliant, intricately woven new novel by Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists

…  See more details below


NPR • The Seattle Times • The Globe and Mail • Kirkus Reviews • Daily Mail • The Vancouver Sun

For fans of Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, and Donna Tartt—the brilliant, intricately woven new novel by Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists

Look in the back of the book for a conversation between Tom Rachman and J. R. Moehringer

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 who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.
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. But who were her abductors? Why did they take her? What did they really want? There was Humphrey, the curmudgeonly Russian with a passion for reading; there was the charming but tempestuous Sarah, who sowed chaos in her wake; and there was Venn, the charismatic leader whose worldview transformed Tooly forever. Until, quite suddenly, he disappeared.
Years later, Tooly believes she will never understand the true story of her own life. Then startling news arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers.
Tom Rachman—an author celebrated for humanity, humor, and wonderful characters—has produced a stunning novel that reveals the tale not just of one woman but of the past quarter-century as well, from the end of the Cold War to the dominance of American empire to the digital revolution of today. Leaping between decades, and from Bangkok to Brooklyn, this is a breathtaking novel about long-buried secrets and how we must choose to make our own place in the world. It will confirm Rachman’s reputation as one of the most exciting young writers we have.

Praise for The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

“Ingenious . . . Rachman needs only a few well-drawn characters to fill a large canvas and an impressive swath of history.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“A superb follow-up to 2010’s The Imperfectionists . . . ambitious and engaging.”The Seattle Times
“Engaging and inventive . . . full of wonderfully quirky, deeply flawed, but lovable characters . . . On the spectrum of interesting literary childhoods, Tooly Zylberberg—the protagonist of Tom Rachman’s second novel—would rank somewhere in the vicinity of Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist.”San Francisco Chronicle
“I found it impossible not to fall in love with shape-shifting Tooly. As an adult, she sports an ironical sense of humor and an attraction to dusty old books. As a child, her straight-faced mirth and wordplay are break-your-heart irresistible.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“[A] read-it-all-in-one-weekend book.”The New Republic
“A compelling page-turner . . . intricate, sprawling, and almost Dickensian.”USA Today

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Thirtyish Matilda "Tooly" Zylberberg lives quietly as the owner of a small bookstore in an isolated Welsh village. But her past has been nowhere near as sedate. Taken away from a home as a small child, Tooly moved around the world with Paul, a government contractor, who may or may not have been her real father. Entering fifth grade, she was taken away by Sarah and lived among a group of quirky characters, including Sarah, who grew up in Africa and may be her mother; Humphrey, a bookish old eccentric with a Russian accent; and Venn, a peripatetic hustler with a knack for landing on his feet. Then, a call from a former boyfriend in New York propels Tooly on a journey to understand her origins. VERDICT Rachman's novel is a mystery of sorts, moving episodically between 1988 and 2011 as the reader attempts to unravel the truth of Tooly's identity at the same time she does. In a novel where every character has created a semifictional persona, this is a tale about the mystery of the self, the power of books, and how truth and fiction can inextricably intermingle. A captivating, if slightly overlong puzzle of a novel by the author of The Imperfectionists. [See Prepub Alert, 12/7/13.]—Lawrence Rungren, Andover, MA
From the Publisher
“Ingenious . . . [Tom] Rachman needs only a few well-drawn characters to fill a large canvas and an impressive swath of history.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“A superb follow-up to 2010’s The Imperfectionists . . . ambitious and engaging.”The Seattle Times
“Engaging and inventive . . . full of wonderfully quirky, deeply flawed, but lovable characters . . . On the spectrum of interesting literary childhoods, Tooly Zylberberg—the protagonist of Tom Rachman’s second novel—would rank somewhere in the vicinity of Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist.”San Francisco Chronicle
“I found it impossible not to fall in love with shape-shifting Tooly. As an adult, she sports an ironical sense of humor and an attraction to dusty old books. As a child, her straight-faced mirth and wordplay are break-your-heart irresistible.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“[A] read-it-all-in-one-weekend book.”The New Republic
“A compelling page-turner . . . intricate, sprawling, and almost Dickensian.”USA Today
“Rachman’s comedic powers drive the story, with grace and wit. . . . [He] can compose sentences, paragraphs and whole pages with near perfect pitch and rhythm.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A smart, rollicking novel.”O: The Oprah Magazine
“Tom Rachman creates this whole world of complicated, flawed and endearing characters who keep you wanting more.”—NPR

“Marvelously written . . . highly recommended for its prose and for presenting us with the strangely endearing, surprisingly good-natured, unabashedly weird character named Matilda ‘Tooly’ Zylberberg.”St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Living on the edge has its pitfalls—and charms—in British author Tom Rachman’s cracking new novel. . . . We are treated to Rachman’s rich gift not only for bringing his book’s personae completely to life but for doing so with great wit and a penchant for Dickensian names. . . . But if the novel starts with the feel of Oliver Twist . . . it morphs into a sort of Great Expectations—and we buy every wonderful word of it.”The Buffalo News

“If you’re in the market for an accomplished and satisfying novel, one that will take hold of you immediately from page one and set you down gently at the end feeling uplifted and rewarded, you could just stop reading at the end of this paragraph and wander over to your favourite bookstore and buy a copy of Tom Rachman’s exquisite new book, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. . . . This is what fiction is all about. It is impossible to overstate its power and elegance.”The Globe and Mail
“For a novel that takes place on three different continents over a period of thirty 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. After his much acclaimed 2010 debut, The Imperfectionists, Rachman uses this follow-up to prove he’s a writer to watch. [Grade:] A”The A.V. Club
“Rachman clearly has Dickens in mind as inspiration for this sprawling tale of an orphan cast out onto the world and belatedly investigating the mystery of her origins. . . . Its pleasures are almost architectural. . . . You may come to admire, as I did, the precision of its observations, as well as its intricate form and the way stray plot pieces eventually snap into place.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“A satisfying jigsaw . . . Bring on the third masterpiece.”The Sydney Morning Herald

“This book is mesmerising: a thorough work-out for the head and heart that targets cognitive muscles you never knew you had. Thanks, though, to Rachman’s lightness of touch and quite considerable streaks of silliness, it feels much more like dancing than exercise.”The Times (UK)
“Some novels are such good company that you don’t want them to end; Tom Rachman knows this, and has pulled off the feat of writing one. . . . Rachman has written a hugely likeable, even loveable book about the people we meet and how they shape us.”The Telegraph (UK)
“Ingeniously orchestrated.”Vanity Fair
“The observations raised in this novel emerge from the very specific tale of one woman and her extremely unusual circumstances, but what they all point to is a kind of reckoning with the most fundamental questions of human existence: who we are, and why. . . . While Rachman's novel offers no easy answers—indeed, how could it?—it provides a worthwhile investigation into our insatiable need for self-knowledge, a desire that is profoundly and inescapably part of what it means to be human.”Chicago Tribune
“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. . . . It’s in something of that spirit that, as the book moves towards its end, the strange gravities that hold its constellation of characters together start to make sense—upsetting both Tooly’s and the reader’s expectations in a satisfying and rather poignant way.”The Guardian (UK)
“Tom Rachman scores again . . . [Tooly] is plucky and admirable and so fully drawn that you watch with horror as she makes terrible and cruel choices through her young adulthood. . . . We watch with admiration as Tooly’s heart opens up and she does her best to correct and amend for her past behaviors. . . . This is a satisfying adult novel with a hopeful ending.”The Oregonian
“Tremendously readable, with characters who often spark and jump off the page, and a central puzzle that grips you until the end.”The Huffington Post
“When a Tom Rachman novel lands in the bookstores, I stop living and breathing to devour it. It’s hard to think of anyone who has a better grasp on the world we live in (and I mean, like, the entire planet) and can write about it with such entertainment and panache.”—Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure
“The haunting tale of a young woman reassessing her turbulent past . . . brilliantly structured, beautifully written.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Rachman’s kaleidoscopic second novel demonstrates that one’s family is very often made up of the people you find and who find you along the way.”Booklist
“A suspenseful novel that whisks readers around the world . . . [a journey] worth taking.”Publishers Weekly
“A tale about the mystery of the self, the power of books, and how truth and fiction can inextricably intermingle . . . captivating.”—Library Journal

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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).

“Take the Revolution,” he called out from the front of the bookshop. “The French see it completely differently than we do. They aren’t taught it was all chaos and Reign of Terror. For them, it was a good thing. And you can’t blame them. Knocking down the Bastille? The Declaration of Rights?”

The thrust of his argument was that, when considering the French people and their rebellious spirit—well, it wasn’t clear what Fogg intended to say. He was a man who formed opinions as he spoke them, or perhaps afterward, requiring him to ramble at length to grasp what he believed. This made speech an act of discovery for him; others did not necessarily share this view.

His voice resounded between bookcases, down the three steps at the rear of the shop, where his employer, Tooly Zylberberg—in tweed blazer, muddy jeans, rubber boots—was trying to read.

“Hmm,” she responded, a battered biography of Anne Boleyn open on her lap. She could have asked Fogg to shush, and he would have obliged. But he reveled in pronouncing on grand issues, like the man of consequence he most certainly was not. It endeared Fogg to her, especially since his oration masked considerable self-doubt—whenever she challenged him, he folded immediately. Poor Fogg. Her sympathy for the man qualified him to chatter, but it made reading impossible.

“Because, after all, the fellow who invented the guillotine was a man of medicine,” he continued, restoring books to the shelves, riffling their pages to kick forth the old-paper aroma, which he inhaled before pushing each volume flush into its slot.

Down the three creaking steps he came, passing under the sign history—nature—poetry—military—ballet  to a sunken den known as the snug. The bookshop had been a pub before, and the snug was where rain-drenched drinkers once hung their socks by the hearth, now bricked up but  still flanked with tongs and bellows, festooned with little green-and-red Welsh flags and Toby jugs on hooks. An oak table contained photographic volumes on the region, while the walls were lined with shelves of poetry and a disintegrating hardcover series of Shakespeare whose red spines had so faded that to distinguish King Lear from Macbeth required much scrutiny. Either of these venerable characters, dormant on the overburdened shelves, could at any moment  have crashed down into  the rocking chair where Tooly sat upon a tartan blanket, which came in handy during winters, when the radiators trembled at the task ahead and switched off.

She tucked back her short black hair, points curling around unpierced lobes, a gray pencil tip poking up behind her ear. The paperback she held before her aimed to discourage his interruptions, but behind its cover her cheeks twitched with amusement at the circling Fogg and his palpable exertion at remaining quiet. He strode around the table, hands in his trouser pockets, jingling change. (Coins were always plummeting through holes in those pockets, down his leg and into his shoe. Toward the end of the day, he removed it—sock coming half off—and emptied a small fortune into his palm.) “It behooves them to act decisively in Afghanistan,” he said. “It behooves them to.”

She lowered the book and looked at him, which caused Fogg to turn away. At twenty-eight, he was her junior by only a few years, but the gulf could have been twenty-eight again. He remained a youth in their exchanges, deferential yet soon carried away with fanciful talk. When pontificating, he toyed with a brass magnifying  glass, pressed it to his eye socket like a monocle, which produced a monstrous blue eye until he lost courage, lowered the lens, and the eye became small and blinky once more. Whatever the time of day, he appeared as if recently awakened by a fire drill, the hair at the back of his head splayed flat from the pillow, buttons missing midway down his shirt and others off by an eyelet, so that customers endeavored not to spy the patch of bare chest inadvertently peeping through. His cargo pants were torn at the hip pockets, where he hooked his thumbs while declaiming; the white laces on his leather shoes had grayed; his untucked pin-striped shirt was frayed at the cuffs; and he had the tubular collarbones and articulated ribs of a man who scarfs down a bacon sandwich for lunch, then forgets to eat again until 3 a.m. His careless fashions were not entirely careless, however, but a marker in Caergenog that he was distinct in the village of his birth—an urban sophisticate, no matter how his location, how his entire life, militated against such a role.

“It behooves them?” Tooly asked, smiling.

“What they have to realize,” he proceeded, “is that we don’t know even what the opposition is. My friend’s enemy is not my—” He leaned down to glimpse the cover of her paperback. “She had thirteen fingers.”


“Anne Boleyn did. Henry VIII’s wife. Had thirteen fingers.”

“I haven’t got to that part yet. She’s still only at ten.” Tooly stood, the empty chair rocking, and made for the front of the shop.

It was late spring, but the clouds over Wales bothered little with seasons. Rain had pelted down all morning, preventing her daily walk into the hills, though she had driven out to the priory nonetheless and sat in her car, enjoying the patter on the roof. Was it drizzling still?

“We took in the Honesty Barrel, didn’t we?” This was a cask of overstock that passersby could take (suggested contribution, £1 per book). The problem was not the honesty—encouragingly, most people did drop coins into the lockbox—but the downpours, which ruined the volumes. So they had become seasoned sky-watchers, appraising the clouds, dragging the barrel out and in.

“Never put it out in the first place.”

“Didn’t we? Forgetfulness pays off.” She stood at the counter, gazing out the front window. The awning dribbled brown  raindrops. Looked a bit like. “Coffee,” she said.

“You want one?” Fogg was constantly seeking pretexts to fetch cappuccino from the Monna Lisa Café, part of his attempt to court an Estonian barista there. Since Tooly preferred to brew her own tea, Fogg was obliged to consume cup after cup himself. Indeed, Tooly had first discerned his crush on the barista by the frequency with which he needed the toilet, leading her to remark that his cappuccino conspiracy was affecting the correct organ but in the incorrect manner.

“Back in a minute,” he said, meaning thirty, and shouldered open the door, its bell tinkling as he plodded up Roberts Road.

She stepped outside herself, standing before the shop and contemplating the church parking lot across the street, her old Fiat 500 alone among the spaces. She stretched noisily, arms out like a waking cat, and gave a little squeak. Two birds fluttered off the church roof, talons out, battling over a nest. What species were those? But the birds wheeled away.

Caergenog—just across the Welsh side of the border with England—was populated by a few hundred souls, a village demarcated for centuries by two pubs, one at the top of Roberts Road and the other at its foot. The high ground belonged to the Butcher’s Hook, named in recognition of the weekly livestock market across the street, while the low ground, opposite the church and roundabout, was occupied by World’s End, a reference to that pub’s location at the outer boundary of the village. World’s End had always been the less popular option (who wanted to carouse with a view of iron crosses in the church graveyard?) and the pub closed for good in the late 1970s. The building stood empty for years, boarded up and vandalized, until a married couple—retired academics from the University of Bristol— bought the property and converted it into a used bookshop.

Their business plan had been to subsist on spillover custom from the annual literary festival in nearby Hay-on-Wye, and the eleven-day event did funnel trade to World’s End. Unfortunately, it had a negligible effect during the remaining three hundred and fifty-four days in the calendar. After a decade, the Mintons sought a buyer for the business, while retaining ownership of the seventeenth-century  timber-and-stone property they had restored, including frosted pub windows, wrought-iron servery, plus inn rooms upstairs. An ad on the village bulletin board—crowded out by the notice of a performance by the Harlech Youth Brass Band—received no responses. Nor did a subsequent insertion in The Abergavenny Chronicle. Nor the distracted efforts of a gum-chewing real-estate agent named Ron. Their final attempt involved classifieds in a small-circulation literary publication, one crumpled copy of which found its way onto a train platform in Lisbon in 2009, where Tooly had picked it up. The ad said, “Bookshop for Sale.”

On Tooly’s visit to the place, the Mintons admitted that theirs was a money-losing business and that revenue had declined each year since their arrival. The best that Mr. Minton could say was “Perhaps it’d be interesting for someone who wants to read a lot. With a bit of youthful energy and such, you might do better than we have, financially speaking. But you won’t get rich.” Tooly paid their asking price for the business, £25,000, which included the stock of ten thousand volumes. They were moving back to Bristol, and agreed that the  low monthly rent for the shop would include her accommodations  upstairs, along with the use of the sputtering purple Fiat.

For Tooly, to suddenly become the owner of thousands of books had been overwhelming. Tall shelves ran down the shop from front to back, the highest-altitude stock unsold, dusty, resentful. On the walls were framed prints: a nineteenth-century map of the world; a cityscape of Constantinople; an Edward Gorey illustration of a villain clutching a sumptuous volume, having shoved its owner off a cliff. The caption was a quote from John Locke:
Books seem to me to be pestilent things, and infect all that trade in them...with something very perverse and brutal. Printers, binders, sellers, and others that make a trade and gain out of them have universally so odd a turn and corruption of mind that they have a way of dealing peculiar to themselves, and not conformed to the good of society and that general fairness which cements mankind.
Against the stacks rested a stepladder that Tooly was always moving to Mountaineering and that Fogg—not recognizing her joke— kept returning to French History. Hidden behind every row was another of as many copies again, a shadow bookshop. On the floor were unsorted boxes, so that one clambered rather than walked through the place. And the damask carpeting was matted with molted cat hairs, once attached to a long-departed pet named Cleopatra.

To indicate sections, the Mintons had attached cardboard signs to the shelves, the subject in tiny cursive if written by Mr. Minton or in looping print with indicative sketches if by Mrs. Minton. Most sections were ordinary: Trees, Plants, Fungi; Recipes & Eating. Others were peculiar (always in Mr. Minton’s tiny print), including Artists Who Were Unpleasant to their Spouses; History, the Dull Bits; and Books You Pretend to Have Read but Haven’t.

Tooly had neither read most of her stock nor pretended to. But gradually she settled among all these books, aided by the amiable presence of Fogg, who’d assisted at the shop since his school days. The Mintons had encouraged him to leave the village and study European literature at university. Instead, he kept coming back with cappuccinos.

On this occasion, he had one for Tooly as well, since he’d forgotten her answer. Settling on his barstool behind the servery, he mouse-clicked the computer to life, streaming a BBC Radio 4 broadcast whose host strove to panic his audience about the modern world, citing Moore’s law and cloud computing and the Turing test and the decline of the brain. “On any smartphone today,” the broadcaster declared, “one has access to the entirety of human knowledge.”

“They need a gadget,” Fogg commented, muting the show, “that records everything that ever happens to you.”

“What do you mean?”

“My point is that . . .what is my point? Yes, here: if these computers are getting so much the better, then soon—it’s not beyond thinking of it, to be brutally honest—someone will invent a gadget to store everything that happens in your life. When you’re little, you’d get implanted with it, a chip or something. Never have to worry about remembering passwords or arguing over what took place. In a legal dispute, you just pop out your memory chip and show it to the court.”

“And when you get old,” Tooly added, “you could watch the best bits again.”

“They’ll do it in our lifetime. It’s a matter of time, to be brutally honest.” Whenever Fogg stated something obvious, such as “it’s a matter of time” (and what wasn’t?), he spruced it up with “to be brutally honest.”

“What happens to the memory chip after you die?” Tooly asked.

“They save it,” he said. “Future generations could go back and see their great-great-grandparents doing things, and find out what they were like.”

“Except for anyone who’d existed before the invention—people like us. We’d seem the equivalent of prehistoric humans. Don’t you think? We’d be wiped away, ‘swept into the same oblivion with the generations of ants and beavers,’” Tooly said, quoting a line whose author escaped her.

Fogg scratched his blondish stubble and looked up at the pressed-tin ceiling, as if generations of ants and beavers were gazing down, awaiting his rejoinder. “But our future ancestors could retrieve our memories somehow,” he said. “People in the future could, sort of, come back and save bits that already happened.”

“You’re getting silly now. I need to file you under Sci-Fi. Anyway, if every second of your life was stored, there’d be too much to deal with. Nobody would have time to go over a memory chip containing everything that happened—you’d waste your life checking the past. You’d have to give up and trust your brain to keep the bits worth saving. And we’d be where we are now.”

She disappeared down an aisle, wending past boxes of stock. Tooly had such a particular gait, toes touching down first, balls of her feet slowly cushioning the heel to ground. When she stopped, her feet splayed, back straightened, chin down, a surveying gaze that warmed when she smiled at him, eyes igniting first, lips not quite parting. She descended the creaking stairs to the snug, sat in her rocking chair, resumed the Anne Boleyn paperback.

“The thing I wonder,” Fogg said, having trailed after, ledger pencil flicking in his hand, “is whether horse is an acquired taste or if there’s something genetic in liking it.”

She laughed, enjoying this typically Foggian swerve of subject.

“Though I reckon,” he continued, “that the French only started eating their mares and their colts and their other horse varieties during the Napoleonic Wars, when the Russian campaign fell to pieces, when they were retreating, and it was awful cold, and they had no proper food left. All they had was horses, so they made supper of them. Which is where the French habit of nibbling horses got its start.”

“It was also at that moment that the French began eating frogs, which some of the smaller troops had ridden into battle,” she said. “How much better life would’ve been if they’d arrived at the Russian front on marbled beef!”

“You can’t actually ride cows,” Fogg said earnestly. “Can’t be done. This boy at my school, Aled, tried it once and it can’t be done. As for a battle situation, a cow would be out of the question. What’s important to realize about the French is that . . .”

The background Fogg calmed her. She had no desire to read more about the unfortunate Anne Boleyn. She knew how that story ended.

Tooly took the map from her duffle coat and let it expand like an accordion, then compressed it back to sense, folding the island of Manhattan  into a manageable square at which she squinted, then glanced up, finding no relation between the printed grid before her and the concrete city around. Maps were so flat and places so round—how to reconcile them? Especially here, where manholes billowed, crosswalks pulsated stop-red, and the sidewalk shuddered from subway trains clattering underground.

Up Fifth Avenue she tramped, through tides of foot traffic, glimpsing strangers as they brushed past, their faces near for an instant, then gone forever. At the fringe of Rockefeller Center, she stood apart from the crowd and bit off the lid of her blue felt-tip pen, wind icing her teeth. She removed her mittens, let them dangle from the string through her sleeves, and drew another wobbly line up the map.

Tooly intended to walk the entirety of New York, every passable street in the five boroughs. After several weeks, she had pen lines radiating like blue veins from her home in the separatist republic of Brooklyn into the breakaway nations of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, although their surly neighbor, Staten Island, remained unmarked. Initially, she had chosen neighborhoods to explore by their alluring names: Vinegar Hill and Plum Beach, Breezy Point and Utopia, Throggs Neck and Spuyten Duyvil, Alphabet City and Turtle Bay. But the more enticing a place sounded the more ordinary it proved—not as a rule, but as a distinct tendency. A few rambles had frightened her, past bombed-out buildings and dead-eyed boys. In Mott Haven, a pit bull darted into the road in front of an oncoming truck, was struck, and died on the sidewalk before her.

She turned down Fifty-first Street—the buildings pronged with sleepy American flags, neon glaring from the Radio City Music Hall marquee—and stopped there, balling her fists till they’d warmed. Suddenly she burst into a sprint, dodging office workers, leaping around a blind corner, nearly colliding with a tourist couple. After two blocks, she halted, breathless and grinning because of her secret: that she had nowhere to run, no place to hasten toward, not in this city or in the world. All these people strode past with intent. Citizens had locations and they had motives, families, meetings. Tooly had none.

She resumed her urban hike up Broadway on its northwesterly diagonal past Central Park and through the Upper West Side, gravitating to the tables of used books for sale—fusty old volumes of the sort Humphrey loved. She checked the prices, but could afford nothing. She explored side streets, adding each to her map, admiring the fancy residences. Zabar’s deli exuded the scent of cheese and the tinkle of classical music. “Yeah, I’ll take a quarter pound of . . .” someone said. Tooly’s meal was already decided—in her coat  pocket, a squashed peanut-butter sandwich, wrapped in a newspaper page whose ink had imprinted the white bread, thereby offering the possibility of reading one’s lunch.

A few students wandered past: the runoff from Columbia University dribbling south to these parts. They were around her age—twenty—talking loud and teasing each other. She looked at one, then a second, hoping they’d say something to her. Instead, they passed, banter growing faint behind her. So, uptown she went, investigating where they’d come from. Above 100th Street, the pizza parlors began in earnest, selling cut-rate slices to the college crowd. Beggars sat on the pavement, watching urgent sophomores, their cheeks still chubby and their foreheads spotty, rushing to exams, chattering about starting salaries.

Tooly meandered through the iron gates of the Columbia campus and ambled down the red-brick path of College Walk, as kids arrowed off in all directions. Might they take her for one of them? A doctoral student in zoology, perhaps, or a master’s candidate in criminology, or a postgrad in organic chemistry—though she had no idea what such occupations entailed. She drifted out of the main campus, wandering toward a desolate sidewalk that overlooked Morningside Park, the public space down there abandoned to crack addicts and the heedless. Birds tweeted from tree canopies. Beyond the foliage, a strip of Harlem rooftops was visible; occasional distant honking.

A pig waddled up the stone stairs from the park, walked toward her, and barged into her ankle—it was an intentional jostle, not a misjudgment. She laughed, astonished at its effrontery, and stepped aside. The creature was black and potbellied, its gut dragging against the pavement, wiry hairs and a snub nose, not unlike the middle-aged human trailing afterward, holding a leash that led to a studded collar around the pig’s neck. The two crossed Morningside Drive and turned onto 115th. Tooly followed.

Whenever she encountered creatures, Tooly yearned to stoop and pat. She’d never owned an animal herself, the disorder of her life having prevented it. The owner of the pig stopped before a six-story residential building, took a final puff of his cigarette, flicked it into the gutter, and turned for the entrance, which was framed with converted gaslights and wrought-iron curlicues. The snorty pig strutted in first, then the man. Tooly hurried after, sidestepping inside the building before the door swung shut.

The elegant façade belied an interior of dirty marble walls, dreary metal mailboxes, and a convex mirror by the elevator, ensuring that no one hid around the corner with a pistol. A sign demanded no moving  on  sunday. She pictured residents going rigid—no moving!— every Sunday. The pig glanced at her, tracking her with suspicion. Its owner reached his apartment door, then turned aggressively. “You live here?”

“Hi,” she answered. “I used to. A bunch of years ago. I was just taking a look around. Hope it’s okay. Won’t bother anyone, I promise.”

“Where’d you live?”

“The fourth floor. Can’t remember our number, but right near the end. I was here as a kid.”

Tooly took the stairs, each landing tiled in checkerboard, each apartment numbered with a brass badge above a peephole. On the fourth floor, she chose a door and stood before it, envisaging what lay on the other side. This was her favorite part, like shaking a wrapped present and guessing its contents. She knocked, pressed the bell. No answer.

All right, then—this was not to be her long-lost childhood home. She’d pick another. She scanned the hallway, and noticed keys hanging from a scratched Yale lock. The door was ajar. She called out softly, in case the occupant had merely stepped away. No response.

With the rubber nose of her Converse sneaker, Tooly prodded the base of the door, which opened tremblingly upon a long parquet corridor. A young man lay there on his back, surrounded by shopping bags. He stared upward, eyelashes batting as he studied the corridor ceiling, utterly unaware of her in his doorway.

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The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I hate it when the critics all love a book and I feel like I must have missed something. The underlying mystery of the main character's past is hinted at, but was just not enough to keep me plowing through the disjointed segments of her life to find out.
ABookishGirlBlog More than 1 year ago
So when I first saw this book on Edelweiss I was thinking "Hooray another book about books!", not the case this is not another The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and though I did enjoy the book the confusion about what the book is actually about irritated me to no end thus affecting my review of it. That said this review is not going to be like my regular reviews because I just cannot bear to summarize this book with the mood I have been in lately. Writer's Block BIG TIME. So here goes. I found this book to be less than what many critics and big time reviewers led me to believe, it is not the great American novel which i n the future will be a classic. No, all lies. The book was just okay and it was very confusing and yes you get it in the end but did we really have to go through all those mazes lost and confused just to get to an ending like that. Come on now. The characters are uber eccentric and were only somewhat relatable I did find some piqued interest because of their personalities but that I couldn't relate to them hardly at all I just felt a huge distance between me and the book, this disconnected for want of a better term. I did enjoy the story, which I know is a little hard to believe after my rant above but it was just "eehh", not love nor hate.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed Rachman's books. The Imperfectionists was a fun read and this was also entertaining. A grown woman tries to piece together her life with flashbacks from 1980's, 1999 & present. Through these flashbacks we slowly discover who her parents are, why she was raised by a rogue, a flighty woman and an older Russian man....and just who were these people really? Who really loved her, who used her. Who really shaped her life. I liked it.
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the second full-length novel by British-born journalist and author, Tom Rachman. At the age of thirty, Tooly Zylerberg, a woman with a very unconventional past, buys a bookshop in Caergenog, a small village in Wales. A few years later, as she works in her slowly-failing business, Tooly receives an email that draws her back to New York, back to her past. Tooly’s history is gradually revealed as the narrative switches between three distinct time periods: in 1988, Tooly is in Bangkok with Paul; in 1999/2000, she is living in New York with Humphrey; and 2011 Tooly travels New York and further. The slow reveal makes for plenty of intrigue as the reader wonders about the unusual characters that people Tooly’s life and the transitions between those three significant phases described. Rachman fills his novel with memorable individuals, few of whom turn out to be quite what they first seem: Tooly herself, quirky, funny and highly individual; the emotionally undemonstrative yet deeply caring Paul; the enigmatic and very charismatic Venn; the Russian ex-pat Humphrey, who teaches Tooly to play chess and cements her love of books; the volatile, unpredictable Sarah, full of mercurial moods and melodrama, flitting in and out of Tooly’s life; the steady, stable Duncan, lawyer and music enthusiast; the somewhat eccentric Welshman, Fogg; and the opinionated Emerson, (“a mediocrity in search of an admiration society”). Rachman’s varied cast offer opinions on historic events, current affairs and life in general (“….progress played a trick. It presented the ultimate gluttony of all: those double clicks that turned everyone into rodents pressing buttons for the next sugar pellet. People who used to deride the losers for watching ten hours of TV a day won’t hesitate to click a mouse for longer” and “People did not see the world for what it was, but for what they were”). His descriptive prose is wonderfully evocative (“To the right lay England: quilted countryside seamed by hedgerows and trees, every field fenced in and farmed. To the left was Wales: a tangle of rambling green, flinty farmhouses, forbidding woods” and “The disquiet of others was an undiscovered force alongside gravity that, rather than pulling downwards, emanated outward from its source” and “In the hotel lobby, a brass revolving door swallowed Tooly, spat her into the metropolis, her entrance punctuated by doormen whistling for cabs and the bap-bap-bap of horns”). Readers will laugh out loud (especially at Humphrey’s mangling of idiomatic expressions and his theory of baldness in Russian politics) and be moved to tears as Tooly finally uncovers her past. Certain passages will resonate with lovers of print books: “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” and “Books, he said, are like mushrooms. They grow when you are not looking. Books increase by rule of compound interest: one interest leads to another interest, and this compounds into third. Next, you have so much interest there is no space in closet” and “To disappear into pages was to be blissfully obliterated. For the duration, all that existed was her companions in print; her own life went still”. Rachman touches on diverse topics: print books in the digital age; the idea of meritocracy; the link between vulnerability and courage; the legacy we leave when we die; the power of others to influence our view of life. The cover art of books end-on is cleverly done. This novel is both funny and thought-provoking: it will prompt readers to seek out Rachman’s earlier works to experience more of his unique style.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BrandieC More than 1 year ago
From its description, I expected The Rise & Fall of Great Powers to involve a child's abduction by strangers set on using (or abusing) her. The abductions at the heart of Tom Rachman's new novel, however, are far more nuanced, with complex motives, some of which actually appear to have been in the best interest of Tooly, the kidnapped child whose adventures we follow around the globe and across time (from 1988 to 2011). I can't elaborate on the plot without revealing some significant twists. What I can do is highlight some of Rachman's pithy descriptions, whether of the "bleary JFK arrivals dragging bags and babies and time zones behind them"; the "pendulous earrings that stretched her lobes, like two hands waiting to drop their luggage"; or an elderly man, possibly suffering from Alzheimer's, "staring at the dark window, as if he'd flipped the closed sign over himself and there was no further business that day." At the end, Tooly, Paul, Venn, Sarah, and Humphrey remain opaque, but we are nevertheless satisfied that Tooly understands enough of her history to take a chance on moving forward. I received a free copy of The Rise & Fall of Great Powers through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago