The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman seems at first to be a sort of picaresque, with the protagonist, a plucky woman named Tooley, recalling her eccentric international upbringing and how she settled as an adult in a bookshop in Wales. But as the novel progresses, reality begins to intrude. Tooley had imagined herself as the quirky protagonist with a life full of adventure and intrigue. But the adventure was largely imaginary, and the reality is far less charming. By the end of the novel, we realize that her emotionally helpless father surrendered her to a narcissistic mother, who used her as a pawn to gain the attentions of a sociopathic con artist. The only people who have truly loved her and stood by her have been the ones she took for granted and those manipulated for her own means.
This is a powerfully written novel with fully imagined characters, and it stuck with me for days and weeks after I read it. If you’re willing to face the discomfort of growing to love fictional characters and then watch them make terrible decisions with their hearts, it will reward you.
[Editor’s Note: I also read this novel. I haven’t read his prior book The Imperfectionists, but based on the strength of this book, I should definitely do so. I did find the unfortunately named Tooley Zylberberg quite captivating and even though Mr. Bookdwarf is correct in his assessment that you’ll hate some of the choices she makes, it makes the novel just that more compelling.]