Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

I was immediately captivated by Amor Towles’ book Rules of Civility when in the forward, main character Katey Kontent (accent on tent), at a 1966 art show at the Manhattan Museum of Modern Art, spots a photograph of a long-ago unrequited love. In that moment a flood of memories and emotions send her heart and mind tumbling. Hasn’t that happened to you? You catch a glimpse of someone in a crowd who only vaguely resembles a paramour from your past who warped your world, or hear a song that reminds you of them, and you are momentarily transported to a parallel universe as adrenalin pops like little bubbles on the surface of your skin.

The photograph Katey saw was that of Tinker Grey, and the time was 1937. Katey and her best friend Eve Ross, both farm-grown gals from the midwest living in and on the excitement of Manhattan and little else, meet wealthy banker Tinker Grey and their lifestyles take a dramatic turn towards that of the rich and unaccountable.

Eve, unlike Katey, is from wealth that offers no allure and makes her a recklessly attractive gal who gets it all and doesn’t want it. Katey is a low-income, high-intelligence, Thoreau-ish gal torn between principal and high society. Tinker is a man of humble origins who compromises just about everything to canoodle with the upper crust. These make up the main characters of the book. But there is one more character I found intriguing, Anne Grandyn, a wealthy doyenne who helps exceptionally bright Katey get a coveted position as a reporter at Conde Nast, and who also unapologetically buys young, ambitious men, including Tinker Grey.

I found myself enamored with the way Towles portrayed the 30s women characters. They were clearly still considered intellectual subordinates by the masculine-dominated society, and yet they cleverly and covertly manipulated control. And the promiscuity! Guess what? Our generation didn’t invent it. No seriously, we didn't. Click on Read More Below

Towles’ richly textured descriptions of Manhattan in the late 30s were so vivid that I felt as though I were physically there, on the streets and in the bars, listening to jazz. I could almost smell the liquor and cigarettes. (Towles pictured left.)

Here's a nice excerpt from the book:
The 1930s . . . What a grueling decade that was. I was sixteen when the Depression began, just old enough to have had all my dreams and expectations duped by the effortless glamour of the twenties. It was as if America launched the Depression just to teach Manhattan a lesson. After the Crash, you couldn’t hear the bodies hitting the pavement, but there was a sort of communal gasp and then a stillness that fell over the city like snow. The lights flickered. The bands laid down their instruments and the crowds made quietly for the door.

Obviously, I liked the book. On the downside, there were times that felt like the author had a serious case of writer’s constipation, unable to move the story along, and the ending felt like a drop off. In truth, the book was a little shallow on story, but very deep on writing and characters, which balanced it out to a pretty dang sweet A-.

Of interest is the connection to George Washington’s Rules of Civility, which Washington wrote prior to the age of 14. Check these out. Not much has changed. In fact, the rules of civility are rather timeless.

In the epilogue, Katey says, “Right choices are the means by which life crystallizes loss.” Ah yes, and how about those wrong choices…

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