Remembering My New York With the Rules of Civility

BlogHer Review

On a memorable December night in New York during my college years, a friend and I picked up a fifth of vodka and headed downtown to a small, funky basement jazz club named Smalls. We were celebrating the end of finals and the onset of the holiday season. And what better way to do that than to drink screwdrivers and listen to talented musicians jam at a BYOB club?

Reading Rules of Civility by Amor Towles reminded me of that night and that familiar scene at Smalls. Though I only went a few times, I loved that club and listening to the soulful jazz there (note: it's still there, but totally changed ... they even have a liquor license now). So as Towles described the club the two twenty-something friends liked to frequent, I felt like I was there again, listening to smooth jazz while snow fell outside.

Largely set in the 1930s, Rules of Civility describes a time when boardinghouses were a good place for young women wanting to live out their city dreams while they worked as typists and secretaries, looking for mister right. The idea of being be 20-something living in a boardinghouse with other girls and someone to watch over them is just so charming. It’s like the college dorm, for early adulthood. Sounds like fun.

While it was my connection to jazz scene that instantly drew me into the novel, it was the characters that kept me reading page after page. The story is told in the first-person from the point of view of Katey Kontent. She’s a young woman who works at a law firm typing briefs and taking dictation. Her parents have both passed, leaving her an orphan as a young adult. Katey lives in a boardinghouse with her friend Evie, a privileged midwesterner who refuses to take money from her father. Instead, Evie works at a publisher and pays her own way.

Katey and Evie are good friends, the kind that the term bosom buddies was invented for. It’s the sort of friendship that goes on and on -- surviving stumbles and absence with ease.

But the girls do face stumbles -- big ones. When they meet Tinker Grey on the night that opens the novel, everything begins to change. There’s a brief power struggle for his attentions that’s abruptly cut short when they are in a serious car accident. Then everything changes.

The first-person perspective works perfectly to make you fall in love with Katey. She’s witty -- a spunky, alive, exciting character who kept me reading until the story’s close.

But if I could change just one thing about the novel, I would take the reader more solidly into her future. The preface shows a happy Katey in the 60s, but I would love to know more about how she got there… and if she is childless by choice or circumstance. I would love that closure on this engaging character.

Regardless, I loved this book.

Rules of Civility is a literary novel, but it’s one that’s filled with twists, turns and intrigue. Just when you think you have everything straight in your mind, something shifts and you are left looking at it all from another angle. Pour yourself a cocktail and enjoy it.

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