Turn Off Your Phone, Put on the Coffee, and Curl Up With Rules of Civility

BlogHer Review

“That’s how quickly New York city comes about – like a weathervane  - or the head of a cobra.  Time tells which.”

1937.  The Great Depression is over and so is Prohibition.  The Jazz Age unfolded into the next decade with a rush and a swirl, and New York city’s establishments filled up once again with the younger generations of the country’s wealthiest families.  Looking in from the edges and hoping beyond hope to join in on a lifestyle that was exciting and heady with promise were the working class of New York. 

Kate Kontent and Eve Ross, roommates and working girls, have forged a tight friendship defying the conventions of society, pinching their pennies and stretching dollars to enjoy the sights and sounds of New York in its heyday.  The last night of the year, drinking gin and listening to jazz in a cheap bar, a chance meeting with Tinker Grey will change the course of both of their lives in ways they could not have imagined.

Amor Towles' debut novel is a sublime read.  He brings to life a time long forgotten with exquisite turns of phrase and sharp detail. I was completely captivated by Rules of Civility from the first paragraph.  In the voice of his main protagonist, Kate Kontent, Towles opens the novel with a scene set more than 30 years ahead of its base timeline.  You are immediately drawn in by Kate’s chance brush with her past and eager to learn about the people and the time who so clearly have impacted her life. 

Kate is a woman out of time, out of place, with an intelligence and skill far surpassing her humble family origins.  Born to a working class family, she has ambition but little direction.  In New York, though, talent and a little bit of luck continually land our gifted storyteller in the right place at the right time.  In the lean years following the depression, happy endings may be a fairytale beyond imagining, but Towles skillfully creates a world where even the confusing and the painful give rise to opportunity and, eventually, resolution of a sort.

Towles has clearly studied his material, and he easily captures the language and mores of the thirties and forties without being didactic.  His characters are believable and entrancing, and without any effort whatsoever I found myself digging my nails into my pants, willing for Kate to come out on top in a story where, in the end, it is both beauty and brain that matter.

“-Most people remember the Phoenix for being born from the ashes, he said, but they forget its other feature.

-What’s that? I asked

-That it lives five hundred years.

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