A Journey to 1930s Manhattan: Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility
The geography of New York City is the same but the ambiance is oh so very 1930s in the pages of Amor Towles' novel, Rules of Civility. And what a world it is — filled with innocence aching for the thrills that money can buy, as young women are courted by well-born men. Yet as the novel unfolds we find deceit, passion, intrigue, and everything that makes a novel a delectable and satisfying read. Moreover, there is undeniable — but never prissy — moral depth to the issues the novel raises.
A whirl of uptown venues — the 21 Club, the Beresford, the Carlyle, the King Cole Bar, the Rainbow Room – conjure opulence and money, even today. But the novel deliberately juxtaposes these iconic haunts with ordinary images that open each of its sections — subway photos by Walker Evans that speak to the quotidian lives the majority of New Yorkers lived in the late '30s.
Katey Kontent, born Katya, is from the wrong side of the tracks, Queens, but that doesn't get in her way because she is not only very smart, but wise beyond her years. Her voice opens the novel in 1969 but we quickly find ourselves in 1938 when Katey, young and feisty, is employed as a typist at a law firm and lives in a boardinghouse with others, who may not all be fortunate enough to discard the social shackles of their birth.
Katey is that rarest of self-aware heroines for she is both kind and competitive, generous but aware of generosity's cost. The novel first embroils us in the midst of her new affection for Tinker Grey and her friendship with Eve Ross. But this is no mere love triangle that Towles creates; it is a portrait of an era, where young swells and wannabe swells take their girls to Marx Brothers movies, fortifying their laughter with sterling silver flasks. It's also a time when a young woman can rise from the typing pool to editing at Gotham magazine, "a sort of Vogue of the mind," not by knowing the right people but by being clever and creative. Throw in old family camps in the Adirondacks and parties at estates on the Long Island Sound where people swan around in gowns and tuxedos and the glamour quotient is pretty high. But there are also the seedy bars, the downtown artists, the Spanish Civil War, and the girls who won't make it out of the typing pool. It's not a spoiler to say that very few people are who they pretend to be.
Towles manages to delineate all aspects of the society and the engaging voice of Katey Kontent with grace, remarkable descriptive skill, and more than a few killer lines. This is a first novel that offers a world you will be happy to live in and sad to leave when you turn that last page.