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The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel Hardcover – June 10, 2014

3.7 out of 5 stars 197 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

As a child, Tooly Zylberberg led a peripatetic existence. Paul, her less-than-attentive father, took her from from her unfit mother, and he and Tooly traveled from Australia to Bangkok, thanks to his short-term, government-funded computer assignments. Left to her own devices much of the time, it seemed inevitable that Tooly would fall in with a ragtag group of ex-pats—mercurial Sarah, Russian literature lover Humphrey, and their Svengali-like leader, Venn—who took her under their collective wing. What is not predictable, however, is that Tooly will be abducted once again when Venn and company elevate her from mascot to compatriot. Rachman, celebrated for The Imperfectionists (2010), spans the last 30 years in this tale of a rocky road to adulthood. Over the course of flashbacks and fast-forward escapades, Tooly gradually pieces together the jigsaw of her unconventional life to confront a complete picture that isn’t always comforting. 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. --Carol Haggas


“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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: The Dial Press; First Edition edition (June 10, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679643656
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679643654
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (197 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #752,048 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 11, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Captured instantly by the delicious opening chapter of this book, with its warm characters and intelligent humor, I wanted nothing more than to plunge into the rest. It says something that my interest never flagged, even though circumstances forced me to spread it out over six days. Indeed, I may even have benefitted by having time to let the intriguing protagonist get into my bloodstream, and ponder the gradually unfolding mystery of her life story.

When we first meet her, Tooly Zylberberg is the owner of a run-down second-hand bookstore in the Black Mountains of Wales, hoping to profit from spillover trade from nearby Hay-on-Wye. It is clear that this is never going to be a money-making proposition, but her book-inspired conversations with her impulsive young assistant Fogg seem compensation enough. At this point, we know little of Tooly, save that she is in her early thirties and bought the bookstore on a whim. The year is 2011.

The rest of the novel will flip between short chapters set in three periods: 1988, when Tooly is a child in Bangkok, 1999-2000, which sees her as a young adult in New York, and 2011, which has a number of other settings as well as Wales. We will meet her in the company of at least three men, any one of whom might be her father, although none quite seems to fill the bill, and in occasional contact with one charismatic but unstable woman who may or may not be her mother. What IS her family background? Has she perhaps been abducted? Who is paying the admittedly small amounts necessary for her to live her lifestyle as a questing free spirit? We discover the truth only gradually, each chapter in one decade providing a nugget of information to illuminate our reading of the next.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
1: Take one obscure, allusive title -- it doesn't need to mean anything.
2: Stir together three plot strands set in separate time periods -- but be careful not to over-egg the mixture by having much happen in any of those plots.
3: Blend in a main character with a carefully quirky name -- Tooly Zylberberg, for example -- while keeping her emotions muted, her desires obscure, and her appeal mysterious.
4: Sift until every important moment and detail is concentrated in the last fifty pages.
4: Top in advance-reader form with a fawning letter from an executive invested in the success of the book and garland with quotes for the author's previous book.

Tom Rachman's first novel, The Imperfectionists, was a marvel: the story of a mediocre European-based English-language newspaper, through the voices of a dozen staffers and hangers-on, covering decades and containing many meaningful revelations large and small. It was rightfully hailed as one of the best books of 2010. Four years later, Rachman is back with THE RISE & FALL OF GREAT POWERS, which I'm sorry to say validates all of the cliches about second novels: it takes the things that were good about IMPERFECTIONISTS and presents them in smaller, attenuated form, while straining hard in the direction of generic literary weight and importance.

The core problem with GREAT POWERS comes from Rachman's decision -- presumably when planning the novel -- to focus his plot (such as it is) on the details of Tooly's history and to keep those details deliberately obscure until the end of the book. This wouldn't be so bad, if he told the story of a present-day Tooly trying to find out those secrets.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is the second novel by Tom Rachman. His first novel, The Imperfectionists: A Novel, was a New York Times bestseller and I enjoyed reading it very much. This book is organized in self-contained blocks of time that have an intricate but seamless structure. The time periods are related to three decades in the life of Tooly Zyberberg: childhood, young adulthood, and full personhood. The calendar anchors are 1988, 2000, and 2011, and the reader falls in love with the developing Tooly in the context of economic hardship, the Millennium, and social evolution.

Tooly's first two decades of life are periods of unique experience and learning that are guided by Paul, Sarah, Venn, and Humphrey. Paul is a globe-trotting computer consultant, an introvert who anxiously obeys rules and consistently anticipates social problems, largely avoiding people. Sarah travels the continents with money from an undisclosed source disregarding customs of behavior and engaging in eccentric self-indulgent behavior. Venn is a tough character always looking for an angle to use people to enhance his personal power and financial independence. Humphrey is an old impoverished curmudgeon who also travels, reveres books, plays chess, talks about his friends in books with a Russian accent, and relies on himself for freedom of thought and behavior. All four of these characters interact with Tooly on an intermittent and apparently random basis making it difficult for her to understand her place in the world. They seem to possess her for a time, then abandon her.
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