When NetGalley offered this book I immediately requested it, because Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists was one of the first books I read on my kindle, and I loved it. That story, about a quirky cast of characters trying to keep a newspaper afloat was a little different than this one. Actually, their lives, as painful as they were, seem almost like fairy tales when compared with Tooly Zylerberg’s life in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. We first meet Tooly in her bookshop, “The World’s End” in a tiny town in Wales. So yes, you know Rachman had me at “bookshop”; let alone the adorable name and the quaint little rundown town it’s in.
Tooly is a character after my own heart. She has learned most of her life lessons from books; in fact, they were the whole of her formal education after the age of ten. She has survived from the mean streets of Bangkok all the way to the cultural elite of New York, mostly on a wit sharpened by literature. How she ended up in Wales is surprising, but not half as surprising as the rest of her story. This is one of those off-kilter adventures that remind me of my favorite John Irving books.
When events lead Tooly to confront her past, she sets off on a quest that would have left me huddled in a corner of the bookshop under a tidy little pile of books. Her search brings her back to the very people who ruined and saved her life in the first place. This is a character driven story, and they are developed here with convincing detail and depth. There is her painfully shy father, who tried to make the best of an impossible situation by running away. Her mother is a Sally Kellerman-like nightmare of unconscionable irresponsibility and irrepressible charm. When she had her chance to help, she left Tooly in the hands of a sketchy group: a Svengali-like con man, a quasi-Russian former pharmacist and amateur philosopher, and other hangars-on. In New York, through an elaborate scheme, Tooly ended up with a boyfriend who later feels remorse for their estrangement, and proves to be the odd link to her past.
How Tooly overcame this madness to end up in a pleasant little bookshop is just part of the story. How she manages to confront these characters and attempt to move on with her life is the rest. It is, in parts, quirky and strange, compelling and repugnant. This book defies a neat little description, and trying to write one would only make me look bad. So I won’t. Just read it. You might regret meeting some of these people, but you won’t regret reading this book.