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

‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ by Tom Rachman   (2014) – 380 pages


All of the characters in Tom Rachman’s new novel ‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ have a surface charm that keeps things interesting for about a third of the novel, but none of them has the depth to sustain interest for the entire book.

The central character is Tooly Zylberberg.  At the start, Tooly is a 34-year old bookshop lady who owns the World’s End bookstore in Wales which has thousands of books but only a few customers, some of whom “used World’s End Books only as a showroom for online purchases.”

The novel is organized in mosaic tile fashion as we have interspersed chapters that take place during three different times in Tooly’s life.  Some chapters are devoted to when Tooly is eleven and living in Thailand, others are devoted to when she is living in New York in her early twenties, and then there are those in the present day with the 34 year-old Tooly.

Tooly is taking a drawing course.

 “Each medium confirmed her lack of talent: each arm is longer than its leg; ears were tea saucers; fruit resembled basketballs.  Lousy though she was, Tooly adored it, and even improved in a plodding way.” 

 As I mentioned nearly all the characters here are cute and charming.

 “As for Humphrey, he was never renowned for tidiness.  “My nature abhors the vacuum,” he said. 

These witty lines sustained me for a while in the novel.  However we never really get inside any of these characters, not even the main character Tooly.  On the surface things are pleasant enough, but after about 100 pages, I wanted something more than cleverness   I never developed strong feelings for any of the people in this novel.  The characters lack intensity, and reading about them became something of a slog.

Tom Rachman is, of course, the author of that popular and critical success, ‘The Imperfectionists’.  That novel had the number one spot on my Top Ten list of novels for 2010.  One can remember that that novel was actually a collection of connected stories about people who worked for a newspaper.  A writer can charm his or her way through a short story much easier than through an entire long novel.  A reader invests a significant amount of time in reading a novel and wants to get something deep and meaningful out of it.  ‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ was a disappointment for me, because it never got any deeper than its surface charm and cuteness.



4 responses to this post.

  1. I am approaching the halfway point of this one — and would say that I agree 100 per cent with your thoughts about the early part of the novel, as well as when my itch for something more started to develop.

    I’ve been hoping there would be recovery in the second half of the book (heck, even the last third would be fine). I suspect when I finish I will still be 100 per cent in agreement with you. Too bad — like you, I thought The Imperfectionists was excellent. So far Rachman has had some moments in this one, but only moments.



    • Hi Kevin
      Things never really did pick up for me in the last half of the novel, but I will be interested to read your review. At a certain point the constant cuteness of the characters just became annoying. My take is that Rachman had trouble making the switch from stories to a long novel. He might have tried writing a shorter novel this first time.



  2. I liked The Perfectionists, but I wrote up recently his short Memoirs of a Bathtub Spy which I didn’t particularly take to. It was well written enough, but simply didn’t make me care one way or another about what happened or the characters.

    Obviously I’ll read Kevin’s review too, but at the moment this isn’t showing on my TBR pile.



    • Hi Max,
      ‘Well-written enough but simply didn’t make me care one way or another’ -That describes my reaction to ‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’. There is a lot of variation in the novels even the best writers write. There are some Philip Roth and John Updike novels that aren’t very good.



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