” After meeting someone by chance and throwing off a few sparks, can there be any substance to the feeling that you’ve known each other your whole lives? After those first few hours of conversation, can you really be sure that your connection is so uncommon that it belongs outside the bounds of time and convention? And if so, won’t that someone have just as much capacity to upsend as to perfect all your hours that follow? ” (Ch.24, p.296)
For a debut novel Rules of Civility is more than superior. Amor Towles’ stylish, elegant novel transports readers back to Manhattan in 1938, just before the leveling influences of World War II and on the heels of Depression. The period and locale alone more than suffice to mesmerize. Although the style is reminiscent of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Great Gatsby, Towles’ novel stands strong on its own merit. Told from the vantage point of an older woman, looking back at the year when she, at 25, met a handsome banker in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar. That chance encounter not only propels Katey Kontent to the upper echelons of New York society, it also forever entwines her emotionally with Tinker Grey, the enigmatic, adorable, and well-mannered bachelor who lives his life according to George Washington’s Rules of Civility.
Right from the first, I could see a calmness in you—that sort of inner tranquility that they write about in books, but that almost no one seems to possess. I was wondering to myself: How does she do that? And I figure it could only come from having no regrets—from having made choices with . . . such poise and purpose. (Ch.18, p.229)
Indeed, Katey maintains her integrity in the face of insidious monetary sway, taking a job as a secretary in a law firm for a modest pay. Her best friend, Eve Ross, disfigured from a car accident of which Tinker Grey feels guilty, calls dibs on him, although it becomes clear over the course of several high-spirited evenings that he and Katey share the deeper connection. As Tinker and Eve go to Europe, meanwhile, Katey’s life canters forward through long hours of work, parties, and unlikely conversations until she lands a Carrie Bradshaw-role job at a new magazine called Gotham. But no matter how busy she is, Tinker is always in the background, like an impeded view on the horizon. The story then runs its course with the daily mundane. As the shock dénouement nears, what Katey does not know is that someone else is entirely pulling all of their strings. That New York is a city where the improbable would be made probable is no more than a myth. The city is ultimately the sum of what these young grads spilled out of the finest schools would never attain.
The champagne arrived with unnecessary ceremony. The waiter placed a standing ice bucket at Eve’s side and the host did the honors with the cork. Eve waved them off and filled the glasses herself.
—To New York, I said.
—To Manhattan, she corrected.
—Any thoughts for Indiana? I asked.
—She’s a sorry nag. I’m through with her.
—Does she know?
—I’m sure the feeling’s mutual. (Ch.9, p.113)
Rules of Civility is a flesh-and-blood novel one can believe in, with much fun and glamor. Towles’ command of the strong, first-person female voice is impressive. Katey’s snarky narrative voice is as captivating as the anticipation of what she will do next. The snappy dialogue and sharp observations really bring the period to life and make me get lost in it. It’s a semi-literary discourse on wealth and privilege, aspirations and envy, loyalty and reinventing oneself and how a chance encounter or a snap decision made at a young age can shape one’s life for decades to come.
324 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [Buy/ Borrow]