My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Think thirties – with the linger touch of the roaring twenties -, think mystery, think romance, think New York in grey with the Empire State building looming in the background, think high life, think jazz, think autumn in New York, think smoky bar with an attentive crowd silenced enough to hear the pensive tune of the crumpled jazz trombonist over the background noise.
That sort of thing.
Rules of Civility is the lingering remembrance of a time that perhaps never was but is served up tasty, steamy and hot by Amor Towles. The prologue is the bait. It is set in 1969 and ends, a handful of pages later, with a cliff hanger: “A case of riches to rags,” says Val, the husband of our protagonist about one Tinker Grey. “Not quite,” our protagonist Katey Kontent answers. Or rather, as is written,: -Not quite,. Because in my version of the tale the ” ” denoting speech is replaced by a single – at the start of a sentence. It sometimes leads to confusion when the spoken sentence continues after the comma.
Towles baits us in another way to: a man arranges his live according to the rules of civility set forth by George Washington. Rules that are that old? So how is that going to work out in a more modern setting with different morals? I was curious.
So it is fast backwards towards 1937. We are with Katey again, but now she is twenty five years old and with her roomy Eve hitting downtown New York to celebrate the closing of the year. They run into Theodore Grey; Tinker to friends.
And friends they become. It is a bit of a mystery why this man, who obviously belongs to the well-to-do, should associate himself with two women of the working class type. But hey.. he is a nice guy and they are nice gals.
And why not?
At first it looks like Katey and Tinker are the couple, but Eve intervenes and Tinker and Eve fade into the background from which an occasional update informs us and Katey of their budding romance. A party here, a vacation there. It seems all to be sunshine and roses.
In the meantime Katey has nothing to complain. Her association with Tinker gets her an association with Wallace. And later on she bumps into Dick. All three men belong in one way or another to the affluent layers of society. Katey is hot with the bon ton and, as irony will have it, she doesn’t even realize it.
Another storyline splits off at some point. Katey is a second generation Russian immigrant who works as a white-collar worker. Her task is to neatly and precisely type out contracts for third parties. She does so to the satisfaction of her employers. She even gets promoted.
But Katey has ambitions and while waiting for an interview with a possible new employer she meets an older man running a publishing company, who gives her a job. Cause that is what older men are for. A chapter later it is his referral that lands her a job by a starting high society magazine named ‘Gotham’. Gotham…. Wait? Isn’t that? It might be, but I am probably missing the point.
Katey is either one lucky broad, or a very talented one or very pretty one. Probably she is all three. If I was only told.
But what happened to the mystery? You know, the one that the book starts out with? The riches to rags thing?
We are coming to that about two thirds or so in. So after Tinker we have Wallace and after Wallace we have Dick. And we get back to Tinker again because the affair between Tinker and Eve was just make believe. In fact it was a string of disasters from the start, so Eve tells Katey.
After Eve is out of the picture -she takes a train trip into the sunset and we never hear from her again- Tinker and Katey hook up.
Are you still with me?
Time for a little romance then, but we hit another bump in the road: Tinker has something with Anne. Yup.. it turns out that all the time Anne was his sugar mommy. Poor Tinker is actually only rich with someone else’s money: Anne’s money that is.
So Katey, wounded in the heart, disassociates herself from Tinker and now we finally get to that other cliffhanger. The one from the title: the rules of Civility.. Tinker lives according to them, but it is all pretense. At least that is what Katey thinks in her anger. He is a fake gentleman, but a better man than most.. According to his painter brother.
At this point in the book I lost patience.
I had a hard time believing the fortunes of Katey. She is white collar girl who gains access to social stratum where millionaires abide. Now I do not doubt that this is possible, but it is never made plausible in the case of Katey.
If Katey was portrayed as an intelligent capable beautiful woman (Katherine Hepburn springs to mind) who stands out, then it might have been understandable for her to do the socially upward mobility thing, but Katey is a nothing.
For instance: Katey exists in a void. Despite the fact that she actually lives in her hometown we never get to meet any of her friends and family. Her father is dead, her mother is missing and she has an uncle who is only mentioned in relation to the death of her father. Eve does not even count as friend as she is her roommate. Otherwise she seems to have no relations from her past at all.
In her hometown?
Is New York so big that she looses contact with the people she knew from her childhood? Does anyone have a clean break like that from the past?
But what makes her upward social move itself so implausible is her passivity. You might expect her to be of an ambitious nature with an intelligence and a drive to match, but Katey is simply not pictured that way by Towles. Instead she retreats most of the time to her apartment to read Dickens and Christie and only sallies forth to partake of parties when invited by others. And her dalliances with the men who are infatuated with her, is on their invitation and not hers.
But why her.. why not any of the other girls? Why Katey? She is a docile party animal at best and a social climber by accident.
Towles entices with a mystery and a complication but both sizzle out in the end. They are promises, but little is delivered. What is left is cute but implausible romance with a sad ending.
It is a bit too forced and unbelievable.
A pity.. it seemed to promise more.
However: Extra points for the catchy dialogues though. Towles does not hold back.