Having loved Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow,” I had to read his first book. It did not disappoint. I love this book equally. Though it is a very different book, the same fine and elegant writing style applies to both. I fall into Towles books and before I know it, I have spent over an hour in the pure pleasure of not only a good story with interesting characters, and I find I don’t want to leave the world that he has created for these characters.
If “The Great Gatsby evokes all the glamour and wildness of the post-war twenties, “The Rules of Civility” equally epitomizes post-depression, pre-war Manhattan, the city of bright lights and dark jazz clubs. It is a time when $3.00 can take you out for a night on the town.
The story opens in 1966, where we meet our narrator Katey Kontent, enjoying an art show at MOMA with her husband. They are viewing a series of photos of subway riders by Walker Evans, when she spots two photographs of the same man. In one he is dressed to the nines, in the other he is looking shabby, but calm and at peace. This is the catalyst which shakes Katey’s memory and takes the reader to what was the most important year of her life.
With Katey we return to New Year’s Eve 1937. Katey and her roommate, Eve are celebrating the turn of the year in a popular Greenwich Village jazz club where they meet the attractive Tinker Gray. This is the beginning of an unforgettable affair where these three characters are forever entwined. This is a year where Katey grows into a strong woman, one where her career becomes settled, and an unfortunate accident changes the lives of all three characters. Its outcome leads each on a different path in life.
Katey, who grew up in Brooklyn, is the daughter of a Russian immigrant. Eve is fleeing from a boring future in the mid-west. Tinker is a graduate of Yale and an investment manager. He is flush with money and living in the stylish Beresford on Central Park West. When Eve and Tinker drift out of Katey’s life, (but not for long as the novel takes place over the course of one year), Katey is taken up by the smart set, debs working alongside of her at the popular magazine, “Gotham,” where she is an assistant to the demanding editor. She is soon cavorting in Oyster Bay and the Adirondacks with the young rich, somehow preserving herself from their fast life style. Along the way she meets a decent fellow, Wallace Vanderwhile (who is one of the early casualties of WWII). Later in the book, Katey tells us, “It is one of life’s little ironies, of the four with whom I spent 1938, it was Wallace who maintained the greatest influence on my daily life.” I won’t tell you why, it would be a spoiler.
The title of the book is taken from George Washington’s Rules of Civility, which can be found in the addendum. Tinker carried this book with him and it is important in understanding his character and the choices he makes. Of all the characters, he and Katey are soul mates and forever tied by love.
Towels is a beautiful writer, who sets a mood which carries a reader through to the last page. The two books of his I have read are gems to keep on my bookshelf. I highly recommend this book to all readers and book groups.