I Love New York and Rules of Civility

BlogHer Review

Reading Rules of Civility by Amor Towles was my last summer hurrah. And a hurrah it was. As soon as the extended flashback took me to New York City in 1936 my thoughts immediately went to Jay Gatsby, and Daisy, and Nick Carraway. A Gatsby-esque novel that is written with beautiful language that you don’t find often. Though it is considered literary fiction, it’s not stuffy or off-putting, rather it’s inviting and entertaining. Imagine if Carrie Bradshaw were more ambitious, less man-crazy, and more refined. Put her in 1936, add a tragic accident, an opportunist best friend, and a mysterious wealthy bachelor, and you have just the beginning of Towles’ tale.

Where The Great Gatsby took place in the golden age of the 1920’s, Towles’ novel takes place in the middle of the American Depression, but the Manhattan he writes about doesn’t really seem to notice. The narrator and main character, Katey Kontent, tells us the story of her most pivotal year of adulthood for many reasons, both tragic and blissful, but Katey isn’t the heroine. She is a female Nick Carraway, an observer of sorts. She observes Tinker Grey, fabulous bachelor on New Year’s Eve while she and her roommate Eve celebrate. She observes as Eve manipulates and masterminds a plan to woo Tinker away from Katey, even though fate and a tragic accident certainly help Eve’s plotting.

Katey is smart, she is reserved, and she is also lucky, meeting a seemingly perfect man after it is clear to her that Tinker is no longer available. But decades later she sees and image of Tinker, and 1936 with its jazz clubs and Bentleys and Beresford apartments all flood her memories. It’s a fascinating story written in a lyrical rhythm that is rare today's fiction.

As Katey eventually tells her audience, "Old times, as my father used to say: If you're not careful, they'll gut you like a fish." And she’s right. And while old times may gut you, a good novel about old times bolsters you.

And you find yourself longing for Towles’ Manhattan, a world that will both build and destroy you.


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