Rich, Rewarding and Rare: Rules of Civility
By Gretchen Joy on September 13, 2011
I feel as if I've just returned from another place and another time! The book Rules of Civility by Amor Towles swept me almost instantly into January of the year 1938 and onto the New York island of Manhattan which was no small feat because as I was reading I was actually melting by a pool in late July in a rather rural setting near my home which is decidedly no where near New York.
The storyline of Rules of Civility is built on the unique scaffolding of the year 1938. Chapter 1 draws back the curtain on New Year's Eve of 1937 and then leads the reader gently, if urgently forward through the next year introducing a rich cast of characters. Manhattan, in all of its 1930s charm becomes a very real character as cigarette smoke and jazz notes float in the air and among its inhabitants.
Rules of Civility is written in the first person voice of Kate Kontent, a classy, self-assured, and inherently admirable character whose quiet confidence marks each step she takes. Katey's best friend, Eve Ross is vivacious, appealing and quick witted all of which she uses much to her own advantage. Finally, the character on whom the tale spins, and on whom a great name rests, Tinker Grey, short for Theodore. A chance meeting provokes Tinker to introduce himself to Katey and Eve who are out to celebrate the New Year. The lives of these three characters will never again be the same as a result of this New Year's introduction and the year's subsequent passage.
Tinker, whose interest is initially piqued at Katey's inner stillness and surity, is soon turned by a sudden event toward Eve. Katey, undeterred, concentrates on improving her existence as a Wall Street legal secretary living in a boarding house to that of an up-and-coming woman-to-be-taken-seriously by employers and society as well. As Kate's circle of friends expands, irresistible characters like Wallace Wolcott, Dicky Vanderwhile, and Anne Grandin are introduced, all of whom appear at first a part of the periphery and then move, each in their own turn, to Katey's center stage to accompany her on her journey through the year.
Amor Towle's rich telling of this story beautifully lays out the themes of loyalty, of the passage of time, of stature, and of class against the backdrop of 1930s Manhattan and all of the history that whispers in the distance. Though sparse, the dialogue (indicated by a dash rather than quotation marks in the text) was snappy and smart and often amusing. Each sentence, full of nuance and color, was a joy to read.
At the end of the book Tinker, while gazing at the city's skyline thinks,
...from that vantage point Manhattan was simply so beautiful, so elegant, so obviously full of promise--you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.
On a smaller scale, that is exactly how I felt about finishing Rules of Civility. It is so lovely, so elegant, so full of promise, I just kept wanting to read and read without ever quite arriving at the end.
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