The Rise & Fall of Great Powers takes place in three different time periods (1988, 1999-2000, and 2011), centering on the story of Matilda "Tooly" Zylberberg, who is in elementary school in 1988 and living with her father Paul, who seems to have a dicey sort of job and moves somewhere new every year, but never in the U.S., where they're from. By 1999, Tooly is a young woman on her own, although she seems to have a sibling-like relationship with a mysterious man called Venn, while living with an elderly Russian man named Humphrey and insinuating herself into a group of college students. In 2011, Tooly is a loner who's purchased a bookstore in an obscure Welsh town.
The book goes back and forth between these time periods, with a great deal of mystery as to how Tooly went from living with her father to living with Humphrey to living in Wales. That's part of the problem--the structure is unwieldy and after a while, feels unnecessary. The mystery isn't terribly difficult to figure out (although the specific details are), and given that most of it is dumped at the end of the book, we don't get much time to see Tooly respond to the story of her life, finally revealed.
Tooly herself is a fairly passive character, just kind of bumming around and hanging out with anyone who pays attention to her. Buying the bookstore is the first big act of independence we see. But even when she learns some devastating things about her past, she's strangely unmoved. The ending itself isn't at all convincing.
Sadly, the most interesting character by far is Humphrey. An entire book about him would have been more welcome. He has his own secrets and flaws, and yet is far more endearing than Tooly, who simply exists.
All that said, Rachman can write, and although this was a disappointment, I'll definitely keep an eye out for his next book. A sophomore slump doesn't have to be permanent.
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with an ARC via NetGalley.