Rules of Civility: Possibly the Best Book I've Read All Year
If you wanted to hear a rich tale of the love triangle that develops between a young woman, New York City, and dirty martinis, I could tell you about that summer when I was 23. But you’d be better off reading Amor Towles' new novel, Rules of Civility. It’s much more glamorous.
Katey Kontent, Steady Protagonist. That’s what the luxe, deep voice-over would say as she were introduced, if this book were narrated as a noir film, and it is very noir-ish in tone. Katey, a Brighton Beach-bred daughter of immigrants, provides the equilibrium for a character-dense story set in post-Depression Manhattan, where everyone reinvents themselves and reinvents themselves again.
The story opens on the last night of 1937, as Katey and her best friend Evey, an Indiana girl making it on her own in New York, celebrate “where the gin was cheap enough that we could each have one martini an hour.” Their exuberance outgrows their modest budget, and in that moment, their grand adventure begins. But they don’t know it just yet.
“A little after nine-thirty, we drank eleven o’clock’s gin. And at ten, we drank the eggs and toast. We had four nickels between us and we hadn’t had a bite to eat. It was time to start improvising.”
Together the gals befriend the gorgeous, wealthy, but reticent Tinker Gray. Gray is the man they hope will settle their tab, at first, but quickly he becomes so much more. In that grand evening and the first weeks of the New Year, Katey, Evey and Tinker develop an intense three-way relationship. And as it sometimes goes in suspenseful narrative arcs, a tragic car accident happens suddenly and changes their lives forever.
I won’t tell you what happens because I believe you should go read this book; it’s possibly the best novel I’ve read all year. I will tell you that Towles’ characters are compelling and fully-conceived; that their iterations speak to the Jazz Age soundtrack that plays behind the narrative, pulsating with the new message that hemlines can rise and people can change and anything goes; that this story is a testament to the value of the age-old counsel: Know Thyself.
And it is, of course, a booze-filled, smoke-filled, romance-filled ode to the city I love. Rules of Civility is lyrical and lovely, and as Katey looks back from the epilogue and tells her tale, you’ll love New York, too, and the idea that anybody can become anything.