Rules of Civility: A Lovely Nostalgic Novel
Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles, is a deeply nostalgic novel. Perhaps this is why I liked it so much. I read somewhere that those of us identifying as “children of the 80s” are a particularly nostalgic generation. We can’t help but try to relive our halcyon days. Just look at Hollywood’s endless supply of '80s remakes, from 90201 and Knight Rider, to Tron and The Karate Kid.
Set in the pre-war 1930s, Rules of Civility centers around Katey Kontent, an ambitious twenty-something girl of modest means and sharp wit, making her way in New York City. She finds her way into the trust-fund social circle, Ivy Leaguers who live off family money and frequently make their way to Hampton estates for extravagant parties. But the specter of the Depression looms behind the parties and wealth, as well as the broken dreams of those who had more to lose than just money.
Although the dialog in the novel is sometimes a bit too witty, with conversations reading more like what you wished you’d said, it is thoroughly enjoyable. Katey is a likeable character, funny and sharp, with descriptive one-liners that set the tone of the book: “I had the house salad—a terrific concoction of iceberg greens, cold blue cheese and warm red bacon. If I were a country, I would have made it my flag.” Rules of Civility reads like a Gossip Girl for the 1930s.
But nostalgia always carries a bittersweet sadness alongside its fond remembrances. As we reflect back, we cannot help but wonder what else might have been. We age and mature, and make our choices in life, but even if we are happy, “Right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”
As I read Rules of Civility, I was reminded of my own time in New York City, taking the train from school in New Haven on the weekends, feeling like my whole life was ahead of me. I couldn’t help but long for the days when I believed anything could happen, before I knew the loss and disappointment that inevitably come to all of us as we grow up. Katey said it best. “Old times, as my father used to say: If you’re not careful, they’ll gut you like a fish.”