Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles
Reviewed by Rima Walker
Pour yourself a dry martini, fit a cigarette into your ivory holder, sit back in your easy chair and open this book. You’ll find yourself one of the crowd in Manhattan in the late 1930s. There you will meet a tall, good looking, ambitious woman, named Katey (Katya) Kontent, daughter of a Russian immigrant who will take you on a journey with people from all classes who party almost every night, drink hard, enjoy the world of jazz, and still manage to work during the day.
Katey lives in a boardinghouse with Eve, described as “starlight with limbs”, who comes from money but refuses to take it from her Midwestern family. One night in a downtown bar the two women meet a banker, Tinker Grey, and everything changes. The three become fast friends, and although Tinker and Katey are attracted to each other, a horrible car accident puts paid to what was probably the beginning of a romantic relationship. Perhaps Tinker blames himself for the accident, because he takes Eve into his home to look after her. She has sustained a broken leg that leaves her with a limp and a terrible scar across her face. Propinquity does the trick, and Eve and Tinker become a couple leaving Katey out in the cold where she must make a life for herself and succeed at what she wants to do—become a writer for a magazine that introduces her to high society.
The novel continues Katey’s story—her rise in the publishing world, the men in her life, her coming together finally with Tinker, late in the book but crucial to the narrative. For it is here that Katey learns what Tinker is all about, mostly from a minor character, Anne Grandyn, who turns out to be a major key to Tinker’s life. Katey also realizes the significance of Tinker’s partiality to a book called Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, written by George Washington. Katey had thought that this book, important to Tinker, was the list of rules he lived by, but it turns out that these rules are something else entirely. Books crop up all over the novel: excerpts from Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, a very small snippet from a T.S. Eliot poem, but mostly from Walden, by Henry Thoreau. Katey believes in stripping away pretension and living simply, but is afraid she might lose her belief as her life changes when she looks at luxury and wants it. There is also a wonderful passage about Atlas, the statue across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in which Katey thinks about him in terms of Tinker. The novel segues into a digression about the irony of a pagan statue being across from the Cathedral which houses the Pieta, the very antithesis of Atlas who is “the very personification of hubris and brute endurance.”
Talk of books is not the only subject for digressions throughout this fascinating novel. Towles clearly knows his jazz and speaks lovingly about it. He also digresses on architecture, paper planes, and the song “Autumn in New York” sung by Billie Holiday, and then onto what the fall is like in Manhattan: “…despite the coming of winter, autumn in New York promises an effervescent romance which makes one look to the Manhattan skyline with fresh eyes and feel: ‘It’s good to live it again’.”
Rules is so well written that it’s hard to believe that this is a first novel. It is fast-paced and filled with metaphors and similes very different from the usual imagery one expects. The dialogues and conversations are original, witty, and clever. But two things stand out. The characters are fully rounded, even some that may be considered minor, such as Wallace and Dicky, two young men that Katey goes around with. She herself is someone I have gotten to know extremely well as though I were living with her in the boardinghouse instead of Eve. Second are the fascinating descriptions of Manhattan in the late thirties and the people from all walks of life who inhabit it. This is a love story, but it is also bit of history taking place at a critical time in America, post-Depression and pre-World War II.~