A few years ago I really enjoyed Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists, a story about a newspaper and its various contributing journalists in Rome. I was impressed with the interesting way that the story line inched along, each chapter being told in a different character’s voice, each character becoming lifelike and engaging in the process. If you haven’t yet read The Imperfectionists, I highly recommend it.
So when Rachman’s newest novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers was published, I put a hold on it right away at my local library and was excited to check it out last week. I couldn’t get my nose out of it! What pleasure it is to read a book where you not only enjoy the revealing of an intriguing mystery, but also appreciate the skillful way that it unfolds, chapter by chapter.
This time Rachman introduces his main character, Matilda (Tooly) Zylberberg, as the 30ish-year old owner of a dusty second-hand book shop in an out-of-the-way town in Wales. In a succession of a trio of chapters, one time period each, Tooly is 10 years old in 1988, 21 in 1999/2000 and then back to present day, in her early 30’s, in 2010. Along this roller coaster of time we are exposed to her very unusual childhood and young adult-hood. Present-day Tooly knows that her growing up was unconventional, to say the least, but she has no understanding of how or why it came about that way. Where were her parents, who were these people she travelled the world with and where are they now? Maybe, now that she has “grown up”, she can get some answers.
When an email from an old lover finds her, against all odds, at her book shop in present-day Wales, she is inspired to travel to New York where she begins a journey of self-discovery. Along the way she encounters surprising things about those various characters that populated her youth and who molded her into the young woman she is now.