RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles

Book Quote:

“If you could be anyone for a day, who would you be?
Me: Mata Hari
Tinker: Natty Bumppo
Eve: Darryl Zanuck”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (JUL 27, 2011)

If a novel could win an award for best cinematography, this would take home the gold. Amor Towles’s sophisticated retro-era novel of manners captures Manhattan 1938 with immaculate lucidity and a silvery focus on the gin and the jazz, the nightclubs and the streets, the pursuit of sensuality, and the arc of the self-made woman.

The novel’s preface opens in 1966, with a happily married couple attending a Walker Evans photography exhibition. An unlikely, chance encounter stuns the woman, Katey—a picture of a man staring across a canyon of three decades, a photograph of an old friend. Thus begins the flashback story of Katey’s roaring twenties in the glittering 30’s.

Katey Kontent (Katya) is the moral center of the story, an unapologetic working girl—more a bluestocking than a blue blood– born in Brighton Beach of Russian immigrant parents. She’s an ambitious and determined statuesque beauty à la Gene Tierney or Lauren Bacall who seeks success in the publishing industry. She works as hard by day as she plays at night. Her best friend, Eve (Evelyn) Ross, is a Midwest-born Ginger Rogers /Garbo character mix, with jazz cat spirit and a fearless, cryptic glamor. She refuses daddy’s money and embraces her free spirit:

“I’m willing to be under anything…as long as it isn’t somebody’s thumb.”

Katey and Eve flirt with shameless savoir-faire, and are quick with the clever repartees. They will kiss a man once that they’ll never kiss twice, and glide with effortless élan among all the social classes of New York. Moreover, they can make a few dollars stretch through many a martini, charming gratis drinks from fashionable men. With their nerve and gaiety, the friends would be at equal repose at Vanity Fair or the Algonquin Round Table, or in a seedy bar on the Lower East Side.

Eve and Katey meet the sphinx-like Tinker Grey on New Year’s Eve, 1937, at the Hotspot, a jazz bar in Greenwich Village. Tinker’s métier is Gatsby-esque–an inscrutable, ruggedly handsome man in cashmere, a mysterious lone figure with an enigmatic mystique. The three become fast friends, but as with many triangulating relationships, a hairline rivalry sets in. Then a cataclysmic tragedy shatters the cool grace of their bond, and their solidarity is ruptured.

Towles is spectacular at description and atmosphere, keeping a keen camera’s eye on the city with a polished caliber of writing that is rare in a debut novel. A smoky haze envelopes the streets and clubs and buildings, which the reader can’t help surveying in all the rich colors of vintage black and white. The writing is dense, yet fluid and ambient, rich as a contralto, and cool as a saxophone. Tendrils of Edith Wharton flow through, as well as Fitzgerald, and echoes of Capote’s Holly Golightly.

At times, the lush descriptions threaten to eclipse the story and the characters become remote. This is a book of manners, so the action resides in the conflict between individual ambitions and desires and the acceptable social codes of behavior between classes. However, the middle section stagnates, as one character hogs most of the narrative in repetitive days and nights, the psychological complexities dimming. It loses some steam as the story closes, and the taut thrill of the first half wanes.

Still, the beauty of the novel endures, and the sensuality of the prose lingers. The reader is also edified on the origin of the title, and the author folds it in neatly to the story. The characters are crisp and contoured, delightful and satisfying, even if one left the stage a bit too soon. This is one male writer who finesses his female characters with impressive agility and assurance.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 283 readers
PUBLISHER: Viking Adult (July 26, 2011)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Amor Towles
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

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July 27, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Debut Novel, Facing History, Humorous, New York City, Reading Guide

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