Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
352 pages
Published July 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher

On New Year's Eve 1937, secretarial pool member Katey Kontent (emphasis on the second syllable) and roommate Evelyn "Eve" Ross are celebrating at small jazz club when they chance to meet a young man, Tinker Grey, who sits down next to them. The three become fast friends even as the two young ladies each try to stake their own claim on the young banker. They show him the everyday places of New York while he takes them to the finer places. But a tragic event will change the course of all of their lives.

In the coming year, Katey finds herself moving from the secretarial pool into the offices of Conde Nast and moving between the haunts of the working class and upper echelons of New York society as friendships and beliefs are tested.

This book arrived in the mail unrequested and I set it aside to fulfill other obligations. Then life interrupted just as praise for this book began to fill the blogoverse. Praise, as it turns out, which was richly deserved. As I read Rules of Civility the word "smart" kept coming to mind. Publisher's Weekly compared Towles' writing to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like Fitzgerald, Towles has utterly captured his setting and its denizens. He has glamorized the life of the wealthy while not glamorizing the wealthy. All of his characters are fully developed - the rich are not just elitists; the working class are not all filled with jealousy and ambition.

What really made me love this book, however, was Towles' crisp, witty writing style. I will forewarn readers, though, that Towles does not use quotation marks for dialogue which can be confusing at times.

"As a quick aside, let me observe that in moments of high emotion--whether they're triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment--if the next thing you're going to say makes you feel better, then it's probably the wrong thing to say. This is one of the finer maxims that I've discovered in life. And you can have it, since it's been of no use to me" 

When I finished this book, I finally looked at the author information on the back flap. I was first and foremost surprised to discover that this is Towles' first novel. One can only hope that he's busily at work on another. Then there's that pronoun I just used - "he." I don't suppose I'm very often impressed with how well a female writer has captured a male character, not having any personal basis in determining whether or not it rings true. But I'm often surprised when a male author writes female characters so well as Towles' has done in this book. Here Towles has created a character in Kate that I wanted to get to know, who I could imagine spending time with, something that always endears a book to me.

I highly recommend this book for men and women. It would make a good book club selection with characters and character choices that are sure to generate discussion as much as the writing would.

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