Rules of Civility, Or, How to Be A Stylish Social Climber

BlogHer Review

There have been a number of discussions in the book blog world recently questioning the lack of novels featuring college-age or immediately post-collegiate protagonists. I pointed out a number of fantastic examples, but none recent: F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, Richard Yates's Easter Parade, and, at a stretch, Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City.

Intriguingly, Amor Towles' Rules of Civility can claim hereditary links to all three: it shares language as incisive and poetic as Fitzgerald, a curiously modern female protagonist as in Easter Parade, and a voyeuristic view into the Manhattan publishing industry á la McInerney.

Which is not to say Rules is derivative: it's more tightly plotted than all three, and shows no timidity about touching on issues as grave as abject poverty and societal sanctioned prostitution, things that would only have been alluded to in Fitzgerald's day.

All this makes for a very engaging read, a novel that's remarkably difficult to put down in spite of it's lack of a through-line or overarching narrative. It's more like a series of impressions of one girl, Katey Kontent, 25 and single, trying to navigate the professional and social booby traps of 1930's Manhattan, where everyone has an agenda but no one admits it.

We watch as Katey climbs her way up from secretarial work and smoky jazz bars to working at a top publisher and dining at the Ritz. Throughout her journey, she keeps bumping into one Tinker Grey, wealthy as sin, Katey's very-nearly-almost knight in poorly shined armor. Truly shocking circumstances conspire to keep them apart.

But, like most of the characters, Tinker fades in and out of the story as convenient; he's less of a character than an occasional presence, and as the novel goes on, it's more and more difficult to understand Katey's fascination with him.

However, that's a minor complaint in a novel filled with memorable characters and set-pieces -- you haven't seen parties so opulent since The Great Gatsby, or as much loving attention to the rituals of dissipation. I find it hard to believe that anyone would dislike this book, but if you're waiting on tenterhooks for the next season of Mad Men, then Rules of Civility will scratch that itch and then some.

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