The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman is the unusual story of Tooly Zylberberg, a young woman with an unclear past who owns a bookshop in the Welsh countryside.
Tooly’s story is unusual because she hasn’t had the most usual and common upbringing. As we read, we follow her journey trying to figure out how growing up on the move in many continents around the globe (Asia, Europe and America), surrounded by a complex variety of adults has made her the young woman she is now and find the answers that will bring closure to the unanswered questions of her past.
Tooly’s story is unusual also because of the way it was written. It is not your usual beginning, climax and happily ever after ending story. It is written in three different periods of Tooly’s life: her childhood (1988), her “college” years (1999), and her present (2011). And this is what made it hard for me to get into the story.
Tooly is a complex character to get to know. She may seem mysterious, guarded, reserved, shy and somehow a scared girl and young woman but at the same time even though she never went to school, she is intelligent, brave, wise beyond her years, extrovert, loyal, sentimental and friendly.
When I finished the book, I didn’t know if I liked her or not. Without giving much of the story away, I felt she got what she deserved because of the choices/decisions she took from a young age.
But on the other hand I admired her ability to adapt to each situation. She just kept going, made the best of every situation, adapted and managed to survive. I don’t know if I would’ve managed that kind of life the way Tooly did.
Even though The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is about Tooly, and there are other important characters, for me the most memorable character was Humphrey. Regardless that this old Russian was an accomplice in Tooly’s unorthodox upbringing, it’s impossible not to care for this man and fall in love with what he did for Tooly.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman was not a fast paced read with all the going back and forth in time, but in the end, it is a story that reminds us that our family is not only conformed by those who share our blood. It reminded me of a Spanish saying: “Padre no es quien crea, sino quien cria” which means “A parent is not who makes you, but who raises you”. And also as corny as it sounds, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers reminds us that Home is where the heart is.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is a good book for adults and book clubs. Read this story if you like stories that slowly unveil their layers by making you go back in forth in time. Don’t feel frustrated if you get stuck in the middle, keep going and you’ll see that in the end, despite all the hidden layers and complex characters The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is a story about family and love.