“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, whether the work itself had been loved or despised or had induced a snooze on page forty. People might be trapped inside their own heads, but they spent their lives pushing out from that locked room. It was why people produced children, why they cared about land, why nothing felt equal to one’s own bed after a long trip.”
By the time I reached this passage in Tom Rachman’s “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers,” I was already in love with the book. How could I not be: the story is about a woman in her thirties who owns a small bookstore in a small town in Wales and who ventures back to the U.S. to uncover the truth about her unusual childhood. It is mildly suspenseful, full of delightful characters, and a testament to Rachman’s abilities, delivering a second great novel after his brilliant debut, “The Imperfectionists.”
In “The Imperfectionists,” Rachman wove together several characters and several stories about a newspaper in Italy. Here, he has one story, but it is a fractured one, taking place in three decades on two continents. Tooly (short for Matilda Zylberberg) lives a quiet life in Wales, protected by her shelves of books and one co-worker aptly named Fogg. Tooly is witty and somewhat mysterious, guarded but charming. One reviewer suggested he had a crush on her by the end of the book, and that is entirely understandable.
In 2011, we meet Tooly just before she receives a Facebook message from an ex-boyfriend who says her father needs help. Tooly jets back to New York, where she finds “walking had become an obstacle course, pedestrians inebriated on handheld devices, jostling one another as they passed, glancing up dimly at the shared world, then back into the bottomless depths projected from shining glass.” Rachman is already setting this up as if the character is going back in time. The mystery about her father, and who Tooly really is, comes together in bits and pieces as Rachman takes us from 1988, when Tooly is a young girl, to 1999/2000, when she is on the verge of adulthood and feeling her way through New York City at the turn of the century. Bit by bit we meet the people who raised, influenced, and defined her: Sarah, the diva who flits in and out of her life; Venn, a somewhat older male who Tooly has a crush on and wants to emulate; Humphrey, a very old man who cares for Tooly and teaches her to banter cleverly; and Paul, a pitiful but warm man who probably cares a great deal for Tooly but isn’t very good at showing it.
Sarah, Venn and Paul are less defined than Humphrey, but that’s appropriate. Humphrey steals every page he is on, and even more so after you learn his real story and motivations. The relationship between he and Tooly is lovely and sad. He gives her a love of books and belatedly shows her how to love someone else. It’s a touching relationship and that’s far more than can be said for her relationships with the others.
I loved the story. The pieces fit together neatly but not to a fault. I did genuinely want to know what happened to Tooly in her life and what happened in her past–and that drives the suspense in the book. We see her at different and vulnerable times of her life. Though we know her as an adult, the flashbacks allow us to see her grow up and better understand why she eventually retreated to Wales.
It’s not a coincidence that she works in a bookstore and that throughout the text Rachman’s characters discuss the influence of books on their lives. “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” is a love letter to books. Tooly references the Dickens novel “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” repeatedly (someone who has read that could argue whether she was a modern day Nicholas).
In addition to the selection at the beginning of the post, there are other comments about books. Noeline, a minor but important character, views “text as context, each work the fruit of its times, sown by manifestos, fertilized by historical events, harvested in orchards that petered out, burst forth again, producing a landscape known as the Culture.” Tooly disagrees, arguing a book is “the creation of one particular brain.” I’m not sure Rachman settles this argument.
Later, Humphrey says, “Books 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 the closets.” In the acknowledgements, Rachman cites his favorite bookshops from around the world, “where [he] found haven and company.” Rachman the bibliophile delivers.
And then there’s Humphrey, who, in the book’s most “meta” moment, discusses with Tooly how he despised “made-up stories,” because “in real life there was no protagonist.” He goes on:
“’Whose story? Is this my story, withy my start and finish, and you are supporting character? Or this is your story, Tooly, and I am extra? Or does story belong to your grandmother? Or your great-grandson, maybe? And this is all just preface?”
Indeed, at the very end of the book, it feels as if the narrative shifts to the perspective of someone else. Rachman reveled in Humphrey’s debates, so he shifts the perspective and plays with the reader as the book concludes. The ending is delightful. I loved it.
This was every bit as good of a novel as Franzen’s or as Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding,” but it was notably shorter. The characters could have been far more developed but they didn’t need to be. The story isn’t too funny or too maudlin. It’s just right. Read just a few pages and you will want to know Tooly’s story as well.
Thanks for reading.