After almost 2 months of not posting (yet continuing to read all the while), I finally have some time to review my last two books of 2016, starting with Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility. Now, you all know my undying love of his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, and so I did something I rarely do: I immediately read another book by the same author.
Rules of Civility tells the story of 25-year-old Katey Kontent, a young secretary in 1938 New York. In a Greenwich Village jazz club on New Year’s Eve 1937, she and her glamorous roommate Eve make the acquaintance of Tinker Grey, a handsome banker who’s charm and devil-may-care attitude change Katey and Eve’s lives forever. As the threesome wind their way through New York nightlife, Katey is able to leverage her way into an editorial assistant position in the Conde Nast offices; befriends a myriad of characters in the upper echelons of society; and learns the gritty, nasty, often violent truths hiding under the shimmering facades of money and glamour. It is a novel of friendship, love, ambition, coming into adulthood, and finding oneself, and the joy and sadness that often accompany those experiences.
I liked this. I liked this a lot. But I didn’t like it as much as I thought I should have. This book was my mom’s favorite book her book club has read. I heard similar reviews from others. And so I wanted to love it. I mean, Love it with a capital “L”. But I didn’t.
The writing is wonderful. Towles, in his first novel, has really established himself as a writer for the ages. His settings are evocative, his characters fully formed, his plots complex and inventive while still being beautifully subtle. I appreciated Katey as a modern heroine, a woman ahead of her time. So often men write female characters to fit tropes: the “ambitious career girl”, the “edgy girl who has to get her life together”, the “nerdy girl”, the “blonde girl out for sex and booze”. And, honestly, Eve feels a little tropey at times, with her tumultuous relationship with Tinker, her flakeyness belying inner cunning, yadda yadda. But Katey is fully-formed, an inherently good yet familiarly complicated woman striving to find her place in an ever shifting world full of contradictory societal expectations, family obligations, personal and professional desires, and the ever important question of who to trust and who to really befriend. In short, she is me, she is you, she is every woman, every person really, who has grappled with these questions, obstacles, and goals. Katey is a character you want to follow. She is a character you want to spend an entire book with. And so I appreciate Mr. Towles for getting it right with Katey.
I also think Towles is a master of setting and atmosphere. His New York feels Gatsby-esque without being derivative or referential. It’s a real place, a place where the glitz lives next door to the grime and what you see out in the world is not necessarily what can be seen at home. He gets the juxtopositions right: the feel of society parties vs. the working-class parties; the feel of Tinker’s palatial condo vs. Katey’s old studio; the tensions between the past, present, and future. And again, the characters who inhabit the various facets of this world are real, too. It could be so easy to tip over into kitsch or fetish of this time period and its culture, but Towles toes the line just right: just enough to be enticingly scandalous without feeling tawdry or over the top.
So what’s the problem? Well, honestly, it wasn’t A Gentleman in Moscow. I think if I had read Rules of Civility first, I might have been waxing completely rhapsodic in this review, following it up with how Gentleman is even better, a rare second novel that improves on the first! Instead, I read them in the wrong order, I guess. Instead, my love of Gentelman and expectations for Rules led to a slight feeling of disappointment. But that’s not to say it’s not excellent. It’s just that Towles keeps getting better as a writer. And if these two are anything to go by, I absolutely cannot wait for his third!