When I saw Ron Charles' enthusiastic review in The Washington Post, I was moved to read this book. He warns potential readers to beware of "diligent summaries that might suffocate its pleasures" and I agree that the pleasures of the book are its central figure Tooly with a cast of unlikely characters and the complex way we learn of their true selves and connections.
The story unfolds in alternating chapters set in 1988 when Tooly is 10, 1999 when she is 21 and living in New York, and 2011 when she has bought a bookstore in Wales that is guaranteed not to make any money. From the outset Tooly is a quirky, independent being who learns to trust no one except those she encounters in books. The story we hear is how she came to be who she is as she unravels the mysteries of those who "brought her up," a term that must be put in quotes given the nature of her upbringing.
Rachman wrote for booklovers. First, there is the doomed but irresistible bookstore in the tiny village in Wales with shelves labeled "Artists Who Were Unpleasant to Their Spouses" and "History, the Dull Bits." Rachman goes on to note one of the regulars at the bookstore used it only as a showroom for online purchases. Ah, the sad new refrain of merchants of many goods besides books. In a more cheerful mode, he tells about Tooly, the isolated 10-year-old living in Bangkok:
She ran back inside, grabbed her book, and belly-flopped onto the couch. With the thick paperback of Nicholas Nickleby spread before her, Tooly went still. When reading, she appeared comatose and deaf. Yet inside she moved all the faster, hurrying along a tall wooden fence through whose knotholes she observed extraordinary scenes: a whip-bearing butcher cleaning his hands on a leather apron, say; or a pickpocket with a stump for an arm; or a crafty innkeeper eavesdropping on clients. Sometimes she found her view blocked by a mysterious word–what, for example, was an "epitome"? Nevertheless, she hastened forward, finding the next knothole, having missed only an instant. To disappear into pages was to be blissfully obliterated. For the duration, all that existed was her companions in print; her own life went still.
When Tooly was 21 she hung out with graduate students in New York. She became friendly with a woman who taught English.
They had read hundreds of the same works, yet in a completely different way. Tooly took a book as the creation of one particular brain, while Noeline viewed text as context, each work the fruit of its times, sown by manifestos, fertilized by historical events, harvested in orchards that petered out, burst forth again, producing a landscape known as the Culture.
I found the complex story a tricky one to keep straight; I had to go back to the previous chapter to get back into each period of Tooly's life before moving forward. Part of the difficulty was the highly unusual nature of the cast of characters. Ultimately, though, it was a worthwhile journey.
Yes, I'm afraid I'm going to record a bit of the "diligent summary" that Ron Charles warned about. I defend this choice by saying that I write to be able to revisit what I found most interesting about a book. So be forewarned!
Tooly had been taught from the time she was 10 to be independent and to see anyone she met as possibly useful as a source of money for her "caretaker." When she finally managed to uncover the truth of her background, she discovered she was the patsy for her caretaker, not a partner in this undertaking. When the ruthless Venn is finally revealing the truth, he ascribes to a poet that famous quote from Graham Greene's The Third Man:
As the poet said 'In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.'
Perfect quote. And a quite wonderful book with many appealing qualities.
Tom Rachman, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, The Dial Press, 2014, 400 pages (I read the Kindle version). It is available at the public library, UVa library, and from Amazon.