I didn't read Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists--I will add a 'yet' here, because at this point, I most definitely will--but I heard enough great things that I was pretty excited about The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. The synopsis is pretty cool, too--Tooly was raised by a mysterious bunch of bohemians but hasn't seen them in years, when...
The Rise &a Fall of Great Powers hinges on a mystery, but it's not a mystery novel. The story is told back and forth between three different times--1988, when Tooly is 10, The End; 1999, when she is 21, The Middle; and 2011, when she is in her early 30s, The Beginning. We learn slowly about her life, which is unorthodox; her personality, which is charming; and her history, which is mysterious.
The strange thing about the mystery is that she's living it, but seems incurious about it; for the longest time I couldn't figure out if she knew more than I did (it didn't seem like it) or if it was a part of her character, a part of her story. At The Beginning, she's running a failing bookshop in a small Welsh town, skimming along on the surface of things. Her past is in the past and her present barely exists; it's like she's waiting for something. And she is, I suppose, because she gets a Facebook message out of the past, and she ventures off to see what's going on.
At The Beginning, Tooly is ten, and she's living a life on the move. She and Paul--fastidious, awkward, upright Paul--move to a new city each year--Sydney, Bangkok, Jakarta--for his IT job. It's clear that her existnce is a secret, that he has no idea what to do with a child, and that there is nothing untoward about their relationship. We are left to wonder.
And in The Middle, Tooly is turning 21 in Manhattan, wandering around, scoping people out, looking for opportunities to take to Venn. It's unclear if she's a burglar, a con artist, a great observer of humanity, or all three, but when she talks her way into a random apartment and meets law student Duncan and his roommates, she has an encounter with "normalcy" that she's not quite sure what to do with.
I can't say for sure that I loved this book as I was reading it--I liked it a lot, and I found it compelling, definitely. There were moments when it felt very much like a Minute Observations book, but it was saved from my distaste for that genre by a few things--1) Tooly is quite lovable, in naively cynical way; 2) the full cast of characters in each period and the burning question of how they relate to each other; 3) more "aha" moments of observation than I've literally ever read in a book.
Seriously, I don't highlight except for book club, and I was highlighting all over the place here. The language is deceptively simple--it's not about flowery phrasing, but rather about observations that are exactly how I've thought of things but never heard them expressed.
Fogg formed opinions as he spoke them, or perhaps afterward, requiring him to ramble at length to grasp what he believed. This made speech an act of discovery for him; others did not necessarily share this view." Dude, that's me! Sarah suffered from "the intractable lifelong argument between what [she] knew and what [she] felt." Yes, I know that! And have you seen my house? I need to be reminded that, "eventually, you must do things with things." Not only is that distressingly true, but the context of the phrase in the story bears all the same weight that it does in my mind--things, almost no matter how trivial, have people and memories and implications attached to them, and so doing things with them, or not, is fraught. Or at least, to a clutterbug like me.
Anyway, the point is that this book is full of feelings I recognize, a lot, and a straightforward way of discussing them. And so, if there are long passages in which someone putters around their apartment thinking about life and what to eat, I'm with them, because eventually I'll figure out what Sarah has to do with Humphrey, or where Venn went.
Is the ending too pat? I don't know. I like an ending with some hope and some completion; I'm more likely to be frustrated if something isn't neat enough than if it ties up too neatly. But I think it's important that Tooly figure out the things that I've figured out, and so I'm glad she comes to where she did. There's enough sorrow here for me, and even enough unresolved bits.
Finally, one other point in its favor that I'd like to point out: I tend to be really fussy about male writers with female POV characters. This is really, really impressive. Tooly felt like a woman to me, not like a "person who happens to be a woman." She is naive and tough and odd, perhaps childish, but not specifically because of her femininity. I think you could have convincingly written her character as a male, though the implications would have been different, which says to me that she's not naive because she's a girl. In some places, her "female speak" might have been a bit stilted--started comments with "I think" is definitely something women do, but it felt very noticeable in some places--but in most places, she just talks like someone I believe is a real person, a real woman.
So yeah, highly, highly recommended.
(Oh, yes, Netgalley. Got it free from Netgalley. Sorry, disclosure!)