‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ by Tom Rachman

December 1, 2014 at 6:17 am 3 comments

riseandfallI would sum up my experience reading Tom Rachman’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers as being not what I expected. Recommendations to read this book led me to believe the book would be about a bookseller in a remote corner of Wales and the kookiness/drama/general goings-on encountered at the bookshop. Rachman’s previous (and masterful) exploration of the kookiness/drama/general goings-on at an international newspaper (in The Imperfectionists) only solidified my expectations about his latest book and I looked forward to it immensely.

Instead, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is a sprawling interpersonal epic that skips back and forth through time to tell the convoluted story of one woman named Tooly. (Tooly is the Welsh bookseller I was promised, although her profession is largely, and regrettably, incidental to the plot.) A mysterious phone call from an ex leads Tooly to delve into her past and try to figure out what happened to her in the last three decades of psychological manipulation, neglect, and assorted travels. Of course, what she discovers is in almost direct opposition to what she thought happened. (See also: the aforementioned psychological manipulation.)

The book is gripping—I read it in practically one sitting, staying up much too late on a “school night” than was wise—but also incredibly sad. As our heroine’s life comes into clearer focus, the revelations of the latter portions of the book are profoundly melancholy, if not outright depressing. When I finished it, I closed the book and wanted to cry, even though there is an ostensibly happy ending. There were just too many misunderstandings and misdeeds before the end to allow the reader any kind of catharsis.

Also strange is how ordinary and somewhat pointless the story is. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is, essentially, one person’s life story. It isn’t exceptional or action-packed, although I sincerely hope it’s unusual, and it doesn’t engage in broader issues (although it makes an easy and largely unintentional argument for why child protective services is important). There isn’t an arc in the plot apart from piecing together the life of one, fairly unexceptional human. (She is exceptional, I suppose, only in the same way Jane Eyre or Rapunzel as humans are exceptional: for how well they turned out given the mismanagement of their entire youths and rearing.)

There are tantalizing echoes of the book I wanted The Rise and Fall of Great Powers to be, which just made the reading all the more sad by the end. Every time the heroine calls back to the bookshop to touch base with her ever-loyal clerk, the first chapter which introduces the shop, and the last chapter with the happy ending all made me want to read a different version of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. Maybe one written by David Nicholls.

So I can’t say that I would necessarily recommend this one. It certainly kept my interest and was well-written, but the final chapters were so emotionally exhausting that they negated the rest of the book’s entertainment value for me. And while there is something to be said for a book that both engages with issues of expectation vs. reality and enables the reader to live that very experience, I suspect those parallels in my reading experience were largely serendipitous rather than a sign of deeper authorial intent.

Pick it up if you’re a die-hard Tom Rachman fan or if you enjoy melancholy reads, but otherwise move on down your TBR list.

* Major props to the cover’s designer, though. I love the cover of this book, possibly the best out of any book I read this year.


Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction. Tags: , , , , , .

Nonfiction: The Book Club Killer ‘What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding’ by Kristin Newman

3 Comments Add your own

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Connect with LT

literarytransgressions (Gmail)

@LitTransgressor (Twitter)

LT RSS feed (Subscribe)

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 134 other followers


LT Archives

In accordance with FTC regulations…

...we must disclose that we are independent bloggers with no ties to authors, publishers, or advertisers. We are not given books or monetary compensation in return for favorable reviews or publicity.

Where we have received advance or complementary copies of books, it will be noted in the body of the entry, and will not affect our review or opinions in the slightest.

%d bloggers like this: