The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
When Rules of Civility appeared on several “Notable Books of 2011” lists, I thought I’d check it out. It turned out to be, if not the best, perhaps the most enjoyable read for me that year. I hesitate to say “best” because that is quite a superlative comment for a book to live up to which may leave other readers disappointed, but I can at least say how I felt while reading it.
Pure pleasure, in the story, the setting, the characters, the witty dialogue and that feeling of being transported totally to a different time (1938) and place (New York City). Each time I opened the book I was totally there. I found the language so fresh that although I listened to the book the first time around, I justified that I had to buy the hard copy so I could re-read the numerous examples of figurative language—actually see it in print. In other words, a keeper on the bookshelf.
Now before I go into detail about why Rules of Civility was so enjoyable, I must admit not all the readers were as enamored with the novel as I was. When reviewing a book, I try not to read other reviews to keep my thoughts original and true, but sometimes it’s hard not to take a peek. Okay, I peeked on this one and sort of wished I hadn’t because I was shocked to read things like, “...the characters stopped developing, the action lagged, and then the story ended abruptly.” Like someone criticizing your child, I felt I had to come to this book’s defense immediately.
The story opens New Year’s Eve, 1937, where 25-year old Katey Kontent and her boarding house roommate, Eve, begin their evening celebration. They start at a Greenwich Village jazz bar trying to stretch $3.00 between them as far as it will go with one martini an hour, planning to wind up at a Ukrainian diner at dawn with a 15- cent breakfast of coffee, eggs and toast. Katey and Eve flirt with shameless savoir-faire and are so clever with the quick repartees. For example, “On Friday nights they let boys they had no intention of kissing buy them drinks and in exchange for dinner they kissed a few who they had no intention of kissing twice.”
But on that New Year’s Eve, when an elegant moneyed banker named Tinker Grey walks into the jazz bar, it changes all their lives forever. Katey is immediately smitten, “You could just picture his forebear at the helm of the Mayflower with a gaze trained brightly on the horizon and hair a little curly from the sea salt air.” But Eve calls, “Dibs”, first. Although we follow this threesome throughout the year 1938, the story is mainly Katey’s as she rises from a Wall Street secretarial pool to the upper echelons of New York Society.
Katey, a bookworm, is the daughter of Russian immigrants from Brooklyn (where she was known as Katya) and Eve, a blonde, corn-fed beauty, hails from midwest Indiana. She’s the daughter of a wealthy businessman, although she refuses any financial support from him, wanting to “make it” on her own. Katey has been compared to other notable characters in literature, such as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Nick Carraway in the Great Gatsby. Perhaps some of you remember Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, described as an expose of the lives and loves of Madison Avenue working girls. If you are too young for that one, think Mad Men, but in a much more genteel and innocent fashion. (This is the 30’s not the 60’s). One review said it was also reminiscent of Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities because it captured different aspects of the city at a specific time.
There is no question The City itself plays a huge role in the story. According to one reader, “If a novel could win an award for best cinematography, this would take home the gold. It is a retro-era novel of manners, capturing Manhattan 1938 with lucid clarity and a silvery focus on the gin, the jazz, the nightclubs and the streets.” One of my favorite descriptions was traveling by cab with Katey, “... watching Broadway slipping by the windows like a string of lights being pulled off a Christmas tree”. Or “... seeing limousines idling in front of the 21 Club, smoke spiraling from their tailpipes like genies from a bottle.”
One critic of the book says the plot relies too much on co-incidences, as if only 438 people lived in New York—always running into the right person at the most opportune moment. I never felt it was contrived but perhaps I was too star-struck with all the name-dropping...Bergdorf’s, Cole Porter, The Ritz. After reading author Towles’ bio, I could see where he believes in co-incidence as he personally, on his first night in the city many years ago, met two strangers—one who would become his brother-in-law and the other who would help him find a job he worked at for 20 years. A Yale and Stanford educated investment executive turned novelist (this is his debut novel), I was quite impressed that as a mature male he was able to define the world so clearly through the eyes of a 25-year old girl trying to re-invent herself in the city.
We meet Katey again 30 years later and a critical question resurfaces: “Are the behavioral rules that define civility simply a mask that people wear to conceal their true natures or are the rules themselves important and the motivation for following them irrelevant? “
For a novel that seems to be full of glitz and glamour, it’s a heady question, which brings us to the title: The Young George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. The bonus appendix contains all 110 rules, ranging from simple Emily Post etiquette such as, ”Drink not nor talk with your mouth full” to the esoteric “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called Conscience.” Tinker’s conscience is at the heart of his relationship with Katey and its outcome.
I loved spending a year and 335 pages with heroine Katey Kontent in the City. I hope you do too.