Some books are just made to be read aloud. This one is a great story, and I’m sure it’s enjoyable when read in print. But in its audio form, it’s utterly captivating. I quickly felt that the reader, Penelope Rawlins, was a dear friend, telling me a fascinating story – one that I didn’t want to end. And the voice she gave to our heroine, Tooly, brought her endearingly to life as well.
Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson
THE RISE AND FALL OF GREAT POWERS. By Tom Rachman. Read by Penelope Rawlins. Random House Audio. 15 hours; 12 CDs. $45. Also available in print from The Dial Press.
When we meet Tooly Zylberberg, she’s an eccentric young woman in her early 30s who curiously seems to have little connection to anyone. She’s recently bought a moldering bookstore in a remote village in Wales, having invested her remaining funds from some mysterious source in an enterprise that’s bound to go broke. But she loves the books, and her living quarters upstairs, and is content living a mostly solitary life. Her one regular companion is an equally eccentric, quite dramatic, young Welsh man who works for her in the shop.
For the most part, Tooly is happy to be left alone in her quiet existence, but she does occasionally succumb to curiosity and prowl the Internet searching for news of some of the people from her past.
Then one day, a message arrives from one of those people, a boyfriend she was with for a while in New York back around the turn of the new century, when she was college age. Her father is very ill and badly needs her help, the old flame tells her.
Tooly is puzzled. Who is this “father”? So she’s off to the United States to solve that mystery and see what’s going on.
The identity of the ailing father is far from this book’s only mystery. Tooly, we learn gradually, knows more than we do about her past, but her understanding is incomplete and flawed. Tom Rachman deftly moves the story back and forth among 1988, when Tooly is 10, to the days in New York and to the present, slowly revealing bits and pieces of Tooly’s life.
Was she an heiress, victim of a kidnapping that went wrong? The pawn of people involved in international espionage? Something unimaginable? The action, both in the past and the present, moves in a sometimes-breathtaking way across Asia, Europe and the United States. Always in the background, affecting Tooly and her associates, are the major events of a momentous quarter-century in world affairs. The Iron Curtain crumbles, the Internet rises, 9/11 happens, entrepreneurs rise and markets crash.
Through it all, whether she’s a delightfully precocious 10-year-old, a 20-something trying to fit in with “normal” kids her age, or the 30-something woman who hopes finally to confront her past, Tooly is thoroughly endearing. She’s smart, funny, spunky, a lover of words and books, and a person who wants to do the right things despite what’s been done to her. She has done some things wrong, and has some regrets, but the wrongs that have been done to her are much greater – even though she may not always think so.
To say too much about the intricate plot of this book, about the secrets that ultimately unravel, would be to spoil the fun of Rachman’s energetic, surprising, witty and sometimes poignant story-telling.
Suffice it to say that you’ll love Tooly and enjoy her peripatetic journey through recent history. With her, you’ll come to ponder those big questions about what’s important in life in a way you probably haven’t before.