1930s New York City Comes Alive in Rules of Civility
Amor Towles' debut novel Rules of Civility is an engaging and yet oddly edgy novel set primarily in the iconic period and place of late 1930s New York City. Today, that world is less a matter of historical record for most readers and more the stuff of movie or novelistic fantasy -- a world we’ve heard of but never visited ourselves, though perhaps some of our parents or grandparents knew it first-hand.
And that is precisely the lure of Towles’ story: he creates a dynamic world and a set of characters we wish we knew ourselves, even as it is far from an ideal place and the people have temptations and flaws with which they struggle, like people everywhere. There’s 25-year old Kate Kontent -- “Kon-tent, like the state of being,” she tells an acquaintance’s manservant. But Kate’s not content with her initial lot in life as an ambitious working class girl from New York, and when she corrects the servant, noting that he mispronounces her name Content, she unwittingly reveals strength and substance of which she herself is initially unaware when we first meet her. It’s that strength of character that allows Kate to navigate through some murky waters when a seemingly carefree friendship struck up on New Year’s Eve among her, her beautiful boardinghouse roommate Eve, and the moneyed Tinker Grey turns unexpectedly tragic. And yet, even in the opening chapters of the novel, in which a now-vanished New York City comes alive again, Towles creates undercurrents among his characters that bind Kate, Eve, and Tinker together in an unconventional yet genuinely felt web of love, competition, jealousy and, yes, civility, that keep the reader wanting more. Often I would tell myself I’d stop reading at the end of a chapter, simply to take a break, and yet when I reached that point, I’d be unable to put down the book because I was so drawn into the tale that Towles was telling. Quite simply, I wanted, in manner of all fascinated readers, to know what happened next.
Names matter in the glittering, almost mythic New York that Towles has created. Eve is, in part, a sexually appealing woman who lures both Katie and Tinker into being both their best and their worst selves. Tinker is a man to whom fortune has given much, who plays and tinkers with his life attempt to construct a meaningful existence. Indeed, it’s Towles’ sensitivity to the cadence, musicality, and imagery of names and the written word that makes his tale, already riveting, stand out. At times he relies too heavily on the simile as a figure of speech to evoke that world (“he looked like a past-his-prime pitcher from the farm leagues” ; “it looked like a sorry excuse for a Southern mansion” ), but on the whole his language is lovely and evocative of a socially stratified, glamorous New York we wish we knew. Thanks to Towles, now we can be part of that city for the space and duration of our reading of Rules of Civility.