Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Viking Adult, July 26 2011
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:
A sophisticated and entertaining debut novel about an irresistible young woman with an uncommon sense of purpose.
Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year- old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.
The story opens on New Year’s Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.
Elegant and captivating, Rules of Civility turns a Jamesian eye on how spur of the moment decisions define life for decades to come. A love letter to a great American city at the end of the Depression, readers will quickly fall under its spell of crisp writing, sparkling atmosphere and breathtaking revelations, as Towles evokes the ghosts of Fitzgerald, Capote, and McCarthy.
Every now and then you read a book that grabs you from page one and you can’t set it down. For this one, the first few pages were a bit iffy with me attempting to get settled into the upcoming story because the dialogue was just weird and couldn’t pinpoint who was what or who and why I was there. An evil fleeting thought even passed through urging me to set it down and move on. That cover was just mesmerizing enough to pull me in.
And like a little Energizer bunny I kept going and going and going and going and going… I felt like I had become a New Yorker all over again within these pages.. I neglected to cook dinner for the kids and opted to read instead.. I managed to take a shower.. and then I kept going and going. I finished the book at midnight fully knowing that I had to wake up for work in six hours. At 352 easy pages, I was completely immersed in the characters, and the story. Why was it so tantalizing? I can’t really put my finger on it. It was atmospheric with characters that were over the top, being lovable and hate-able all at once.
These characters were a mixture of stereotypical New Yorkers, but it was set back in the quaint year of 1938. It was a humdinger of a year for the main character, Katey, as she and her best friend Evie meet up with the dashing Theodore “Tinker” Grey and toast the town. A grand time was had by the trio until the unthinkable happens one rainy night. Everything changes for the new friends and it wasn’t all good.
The storyline focuses on Katey, Evie, and Tinker but includes a host of circles of friends who flit in and out of Katey’s life. Most of all, there was New York. I couldn’t help but to imagine my great-grandfather and the extended family living out the lives that the book exhibited in that long ago era. The narrative was descriptive in a methodically engrossing sort of way and I simply couldn’t tear myself away from it. There were several levels of the social classes at work in the story, but predominantly it was a bit more of a slice of life of the well-to-do at high society clubs like 21, Bentley autos and fancy shmancy hotel rooms. And there was Katey, watching it all, invited in, but not exactly a part of that world as she is a straight-laced hard working girl who keeps perfect time. She is in love with Tinker although we don’t really know for sure if she knows it, and she dates others and we wonder if she’ll ever see the light. But then we wonder who really is this Tinker fellow anyway.
I would be remiss if I did not mention a major pet peeve, though. The form of the novel is a bit odd, with the prologue and epilogue thing in a novel and zero quotation marks. Zero. Major complete total annoyance about the lack of the tried and true proper written format. Which is why this is not a 5 star for me. Please use proper punctuation in a book. I get it that you’re totally cool and innovative in your non-conformist ways as a debut author, but get over it. So, with the title of the book mentioning “rules” (*I used quotation marks purposely), I wonder if there is a hidden meaning here. Whatever it was I missed it. Otherwise, Tinker used George Washington’s little handbook of Rules of Civility to help fit in with high society, yet with all these polite mannerisms he lacked the sincerity of it all as it didn’t run core deep.
Despite the lack of quotation marks, Rules of Civility is purely fantastic stuff. Loved this story and if you are/were a New Yorker, or even maybe want to be, this novel really shines just for that 1930’s New Yorker feel it embraces. Think F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, etc. And it was kind of a shame I didn’t make this one drag out a smidgen longer so that I could tote that quaint cover around a bit longer.