Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Katey and Evie are young, good-looking, independent, and broke. They spend New Year's Eve, 1937, at a jazz bar in Greenwich Village, seeing how far they can stretch three dollars. When a wealthy and obviously naive young man comes in, naturally Katey and Evie pick him up.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles follows our narrator, Katey, on her winding path through New York City in the year 1938. Katey is a secretary, a second-generation immigrant who lives in a cold water walkup with her books and her father's easy-chair. But she's smart and ambitious, and she has her eye on more. Over an extravagant dinner at a French restaurant, Katey muses,

If my father had made a million dollars, he wouldn't have eaten at La Belle Époque. To him, restaurants were the ultimate expression of ungodly waste. A fur coat could at least be worn in winter to fend off the cold, and a silver spoon could be melted down and sold ... Asparagus? My father would sooner have carried a twenty-dollar bill to his grave than spent it on some glamorous weed coated in cheese. But for me, dinner at a fine restaurant was the ultimate luxury. So removed from daily life was the whole experience that when all was rotten to the core, a fine dinner could revive the spirits. If and when I had twenty dollars left to my name, I was going to invest it right here in an elegant hour that couldn't be hocked.

Rules of Civility moves as briskly as Katey does, from good pals to temporary boyfriends to ever more interesting jobs. It dwells lingeringly on conversations, observations, and meaningful details - what shoes Katey chose, what she ate, the color of a character's necktie. I was riveted, admittedly because Katey's life is so glamorously metropolitan. If you can resist vicariously following along with Katey as she samples jazz and martinis in Harlem, champagne and oysters at the 21 Club, Italian coffee with shaved chocolate in the East Village, and burgers and bourbon at the Ritz -- well, you're made of sterner stuff than I.

As the months of 1938 go by, what will happen to Katie next? A dinner party at the Beresford? Shopping and a new hairdo at Bendel's? Will she find love, or friendship, or a better job? Or will it all be stenography, phonies, and hangovers?

Rules of Civility is a cocktail, with a big splash of prewar Manhattan romanticism mixed in with the gin and vermouth. I drank it right up, and held out my glass for more. - Posted by Jennifer


  1. This one's on my handful of best books I read in 2011. Your review is spot on.

  2. I honestly think this is really a vanity novel. Good for him -- he is finally published. And got good reviews for a novel that lots of people like. I enjoyed it -- noticing the similes, the moments of expertise on arcane or not-so-arcane subjects. It was like a Weekly Reader story from my childhood, where you circle clues in the text.