Friday, July 26, 2013

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles

Rules of CivilityIt was the last night of 1937. With no better plans or prospects, my roommate Eve had dragged me back to The Hotspot, a wishfully named nightclub in Greenwich Village that was four feet underground.

"On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar with her boardinghouse roommate stretching three dollars as far as it will go when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a tempered smile, happens to sit at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a yearlong journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool toward the upper echelons of New York society and the executive suites of Condé Nast--rarefied environs where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve.  Wooed in turn by a shy, principled multi-millionaire and an irrepressible Upper East Side ne'er-do-well, befriended by a single-minded widow who is a ahead of her time,and challenged by an imperious mentor, Katey experiences firsthand the poise secured by wealth and station and the failed aspirations that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her life, she begins to realize how our most promising choices inevitably lay the groundwork for our regrets."

I didn't always love the writing of Rules of Civility, but the story, the setting and the characters were all really good. I really loved both of the main female characters. Tinker Grey was portrayed really well too. I fell in love with him just as much as Katey and Eve did. He is also, however, the cause of a rivalry between them; they both really like him. 

I've read many books about the lavish parties and upper class of the 20's, but not of 30's. The Depression was on, after all, but there were still many very wealthy people who had not suffered much at all. Katey unexpectedly falls in with them. 

Rules of Civility was never predictable. There was a huge twist towards the beginning of the novel that I didn't see coming at all. It was quite shocking and sudden. They were having a nice evening, and then...I won't spoil it, but it sets off the events of the rest of the book.

Overall, the stakes weren't very high in Rules of Civility (except for the unspoiled event), but the book was still an absorbing work of historical fiction, set during a very interesting time period and dealing with very interesting people. 

Towards the middle of the book, there was a dry patch. I found Rules of Civility much more interesting when Tinker Grey was around, and he does drop out of Katey's life for the most part in certain sections. He's kind of preoccupied with Eve. 

Sometimes there were too many metaphors, but the writing off Rules of Civility was really lush and compelling. I think Towles accurately and convincingly portrayed the time period and the characters' thoughts. Katey narrates in a kind of matter-of-fact, wordly way; she's not a tough girl, but she does seem to know a lot about how to survive in New York, not an easy place to live for a young woman by herself.

I find it interesting how very few books talk about glittering New York parties in the present day; it's all set in the 20's or a bit later. Part of the function of a certain type of historical fiction is to make one feel rather nostalgic for the looseness and gaiety of the time. Although novels like The Other Typist and Rules of Civility also portray the many tensions, and the extreme downsides of New York at that time: the corruption, the tragedy, etc.

I didn't love Rules of Civility (the ending particularly wasn't quite satisfying), but I really liked it. I enjoyed the characters, the plot, and the setting. It was interesting how removed the wealthy seemed from the Depression. I would recommend Rules of Civility; it's a very good historical fiction novel. 

324 pages. 

Rating: ****

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