I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I read A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) a couple years ago. That was such a brilliant book it just spun my head as it warmed my heart. (I gave it a 9.5 and read it twice.) – So I nominated it as a group read at the Modern Fiction Group. (Yes I did.)
Rules of Civility
by Amor Towles
2011 / 368 pages
read by Rebecca Lowman – 12h 3m
rating: 8 / historical fiction –
Sad to say I as totally bored for the first third or so and then off and on through the book. There’s just this somewhat lost young woman trying to make her way in the Big City of New York (she was born in Brighton Beach – an immigrant Russian community in southern Brooklyn), with a a roommate who happens to be the daughter of a rich couple trying to make it on her own and that’s how she met her society boyfriend. Our bookish 1st person protagonist has a truly dull job as a typist in a law firm typing pool, but she does her best with it and that changes – everything changes.
The Prologue takes place in the 1960s when Katey Kontent (pronounced “con-TENT”), is visiting a New York museum with her husband where she sees a displayed photograph which includes the image of a very old close friend, Tinker Grey, who does not look like the rich and handsome banker he had been. Her mind goes back to the year 1938, when that friendship started, what it meant to her, and how it ended.
Of course that means the themes of memory and reliability are worked in along with love and honor and desire, a lot of desire.
The bulk of the narrative takes place between January 1, 1938 and December 31, 1938 which is presented complete with the stuff of the era – the architecture, including skyscrapers, and the music the movies, the nightclubs and dancing plus the arts and fashions and various levels of society from high to low. There’s also a lot of smoking, drinking and some talk of the Spanish Civil War. Katey reads a lot of Dickens and others but she gobbles down the Agatha Christies.
The first 1/3 makes for some rather boring reading, but on consideration it’s all necessary to understand the complete change Katey’s life takes due to that friendship and it’s aftermath. It’s necessary to get to know Katey’s humor and her bookish ways as well as where she came from – The title of Towles’ novel comes from a book by the young George Washington and it’s referred to more than once, with meaning.
Then finally, at the end of Chapter 12 (maybe 120 pages in), Katey makes a what seems like a rather small decision but it’s really a change which almost immediately impacts the whole trajectory of her life (and the plot). I was hooked. The bookish but also card-playing and cigarette smoking Katey is catapulted into the upper tiers of New York literary and cafe society, their clubs and parties, their individual lives, their friends and their habits – circa 1938. Overall it was pretty good story but having read A Gentleman in Moscow I was somewhat disappointed.