Like most of you I’m sure, I read different books for different reasons. Sometimes I read to be challenged, other times comforted. I like books that educate, books that question and books that move me. Often I will admire a book rather than liking it. And then there is a book like Rules of Civility which is, quite simply, a joy to read.
Rules of Civility is told from the perspective of a woman, looking back at the year that defined her life. Katey Kontent, real name Katya, is the bookish daughter of a Russian immigrant determined to make a life for herself in Manhattan.
The book opens in 1966 where Katey is attending an exhibition opening of photographs by Walker Evans with her husband, when she finds herself looking at a portrait of the man who changed the course of her life: Tinker Grey. She is immediately transported back three decades to the night she first met him in 1937 – on the eve of the most memorable year of her life.
On New Year’s Eve in 1937, Katey and her vivacious friend Eve scrape together their meagre dollars and head for a Village jazz club to see in 1938. There they meet the handsome, wealthy Tinker Gray, who charms them both, but connects in particular with Katey. Tinker is enigmatic, adorable and lives his life according to George Washington’s Rules of Civility, but is he all he says he is?
The novel follows Katey, Eve, Tinker and her friends through 1938, just before the sharp lines between social stratifications were blurred by the leveling influences of World War II, as their circumstances shift and change. Katey’s wit and charm raise her from one among many in a secretarial pool to a high-profile assistant at Gotham, a precursor to Vanity Fair. Meanwhile Eve uses her drive and wits to carve out a very different path in life.
And yet, I found my thoughts reaching into the past. Turning their backs on all the hard-wrought perfections of the hour, they were searching for the sweet uncertainties of a bygone year and for all its chance encounters – encounters which in the moment had seemed so haphazard and effervescent but which with time took on some semblance of fate.
Over the next year, Katey and Tinker’s lives will cross and intertwine and the book follows their relationship in tandem with Katey’s career ascension, emphasising at all times the nature of chance and how decisions made in our early twenties can determine the course of our entire lives. The book also explores the question of integrity and Katey’s regular reading of Thoreau’s Walden encourages her to become her own woman.
Rules of Civility is not a particularly unique novel. It is at some level a coming-of-age story about a young girl finding her way through a certain milieu in a certain city. It has echoes of The Great Gatsby and Breakfast at Tiffany’s and is, at heart, an old-fashioned romance.
The beauty of the Rules of Civility comes in manner of the telling. Towles’ recreation of New York in the 1930s is peerless and the reader feels an almost cinematic joy in following Katey around Manhattan, from the clubs of the Village to the WASP mansions of Oyster Bay. Towles is also expert at recognising the vibrant migrant melting pot of New York at that time, without slipping into cliché.
Each block looked like a dead end from a different country. Tucked among the tenements you could see the shops of other Fathers & Sons selling the reformulated fare of their home countries – their sausages or cheeses, their smoked or salted fish wrapped in Italian or Ukranian newsprint to be trundled home by their own unvanquishable grandmothers.
The writing is elegant and engaging, filled with snappy dialogue, sharp observations and a cast list of terrifically drawn characters all depicted with a discerning eye. From a narrative point of view, it is a relatively straightforward novel, but it has a depth of texture and an effervescence that make it irresistible.
Old times, as my father used to say. If you’re not careful, they’ll gut you like a fish.
There is an overwhelming sense of nostalgia throughout these pages and the story of Katey and her friends is grounded in that bittersweet act of remembering. The threat of war looms but doesn’t overwhelm and Towles is smart enough to drop hints as to how Katey has ended up as she is in 1966, without spelling it out for his readers.
Above all, Rules of Civility is a love-letter to a past New York, which glitters and charms the reader as much as the characters, yet avoids sentimentality.
From this vantage pint Manhatten was simply so improbable, so wonderful, so obviously full of promise – that you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.
Rules of Civility is an elegant, poignant and clever novel, which is so much more than its influences or its reiterations and I loved it.
READ ON: IBOOKS
NUMBER READ: 326
NUMBER REMAINING: 420
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!