From the instant you begin reading the preface of “Rules of Civility,” you know the book is going to be mostly about things that happen because something else doesn’t happen. We know from the outset that Katey Kontent is not going to end up with Tinker Grey, but the story of why they don’t is a fantastic romp around New York City with a brilliant cast of characters like Eve, Dicky, Wallace, Bitsy, Peaches, Mrs. Grandyn, and Hank, all of whom illuminate a year, a city, a society.
There is much to love about this book. It’s the FIRST novel for a former investment banker, Amor Towles. (Seriously, do I need a sign from above?) Second, it’s written about a single year, 1938, not a year that is exactly known for any significant historical event, other than it was between wars, was post-Prohibition and was during a period when Americans thought they were invincible. Other than that, it seems Towles picked this year because it lacks a real incident that would have drawn attention away from his imagined characters. Towles also created a soundtrack (helpfully available on Amazon.com) that perfectly accents the book. And finally, these characters!
Katey is undoubtedly the star. She is sarcastic, streetwise, but also charmingly naïve to the ways of high society. I don’t recall a clear description of her looks, which underscores the fact she’s all personality. Her friend, Eve, is beautiful and fun and tragic in more than one way. Fran (Peaches) teaches Katey how the track works (and in my second favorite passage of the book, Katey notices the different classes of people that exist at the track). Wallace enters briefly, shows a kind heart, patience, and a good soul. I think he’s there to show that even in the wealthiest societies, there are those who put self after everything else. Dicky is a delight in my favorite scene; in a moment showcasing his immaturity and also his depth, he sends paper airplanes into a neighboring building as he romances Katey. Dicky’s the goof-off who everyone knows will succeed when he finally decides it’s time.
Then, Tinker. Throughout most of the novel, and especially at the end, I was disappointed that Tinker was the character that everyone else revolved around. The more I knew about him, the less I liked. But Towles bestows a mystical magnetic power on Tinker, and like Gatsby (every other review of this book mentions Gatsby, so I must, though I found the comparisons to be less relevant than other readers), he’s the center of the circle. We all know people like Tinker—people with deep flaws and personal demons who still dominate the conversation, bring people together, and attract undeserved attention. Tinker was nothing if he wasn’t interesting, so I guess that’s what Katey and everyone else saw in him. It is easy to appreciate people with these powers but it’s also easy to resent them. When I finished the book, I was left with a strong distaste for Tinker. Yet without him there would be no novel.
The other character was New York. We see its bars, restaurants, hotels and rooming houses. In addition to chapters, the book is also divided into seasons. Towles doesn’t hit us over the head with the weather, but he drops notes of it here and there—enough to remind you that it’s cold or warm or there is an excitement that stirs in the fall. Place is important here—this book could never have happened in Cincinnati or Peoria or even Paris. There is something about New York. At a moment when her fortunes have changed drastically in a moment, Katey reflects “that’s how quickly New York City comes about—like a weather vane—or the head of a cobra. Time tells which.” A rush. I think New York must have been spectacular in 1938.
This is a sophisticated novel, one that will keep revealing itself to readers who choose to give it a second or third read. Little moments from brief conversations resurface elsewhere with subtlety. As with the weather, Towles isn’t going to hit you over the head with any one piece of this book. It’s up to the reader to discover. Katey’s story is equally sophisticated. We get to see her in one defining year of her life, the one which dictates the rest of it. She’s way ahead of her time and the fact that this is a novel about a certain moment in time makes that contrast even more striking.
The complexity in this novel also makes me wish I had read it in one or two sittings. As it happened, I took about a week of a break in between reading. Big mistake. This is a book meant to be consumed in a park on a Saturday or in a coffee shop on a rainy Thursday. If you read this, block off some time and devour it. You won’t regret it.
The only thing missing from this book was me; in other words, I read this book and the entire time longed to be a character in it so I could experience the city, the weather, the cocktails, the music, and the drama, right along with these classic characters.
Thanks for reading.