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"Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles: A Review

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The fairytale of New York City is just as strong for New Yorkers as it is for those who don’t live here: the glittering world of who’s in or out, swanky hotel bars and Hamptons summer houses. It is a world of movers and shakers and large, beautiful apartments that is longingly aspired to as we go about our daily drudgery. The narrative of the fairytale is learned in childhood, from movies and TV, like some Grimm or Charles Perrault story: ambitious nobody moves to Manhattan, meets the right people, makes the right connections and boom, enters the world of New York insiders.

In Rules of Civility, debut author Amor Towles, gives us a New York fairytale set in Manhattan 1938: a sparkly Art Deco playground at the end of the Depression. It is New Year’s Eve 1937 and two 25 year old girls are pooling their last three dollars for martinis at a seedy, Greenwich Village jazz club. Eve is a beautiful, outgoing girl from Indiana and Katey is a Brooklyn native putting her past far behind her. Right before midnight, Tinker Grey comes into the club. He’s young, handsome, rich... Katey pegs him right away as some prep school, Ivy League graduate slumming it. They strike up a conversation that touches off a chain of events and chance encounters that bring Eve and Katey into Tinker’s world and circle of friends for better and for worse. 

To say too much more would ruin the story, albeit a story we know well — Hollywood has seen to that. As I was reading, I pictured everything in black and white, like I was watching a movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. But while elements of the story may be cliché there is so much more to it than that. Towles gives us a strong narrative, in rich language, of social ambition and inevitable regret as well as strong characters that go beyond the usual stock choices. They are incredibly flawed, almost nakedly so, as they piece together their lives, trying so hard to be someone other than whom they are. Whether it is Katey escaping her poor Brooklyn childhood, Eve her pedestrian Midwestern roots or Tinker his New York insider lifestyle. 

There is a witty wisdom to Towles’s tale that is timeless. The period may be 1938 but it could just as easily have been 2011 — all it is missing is a few cell phones. Just like Towles’s characters we all have a New York dream that we carry around in our pocket whether we live in a walk-up or a building with a doorman. If we are successful depends on hard work, hard choices, lots of luck and just how much of ourselves we are willing to compromise. Like Katey, Eve and Tinker (and others like them) are we willing to lie, claw, manipulate and fake our way to the top? And, if not, who are we to judge as we sit on a couch in our dilapidated studio apartment? 

Rules of Civility may be a historical novel filled with fashion, gossip and lots of cocktails but it is also surprisingly meaty. There is plenty of room for discussion and debate. It is novel of compelling prose and witty charm. An absorbing, engaging debut not to be missed!

Also available as an e-book for various reading devices.

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