Being young, single and free to choose one’s path is a good subject for an author’s debut novel. What Amor Towles has done is place his characters in 1938 New York, where opportunities are scarce and living conditions still harsh. Rules of Civility is not a happy story, though it begins happily enough. Katey Kontent and Eve Ross, two working girls, find themselves drawn into the social whirl of Tinker Grey, a sophisticated young man of wealth, charm and impeccable manners. But just as a possible romance appears on the horizon, a fateful accident plunges the relationship into darkness.
Katey, our narrator, is an adaptable young woman. With one foot in a boarding house, the other in Manhattan’s aristocracy, she seems comfortable whether slaving away in a secretarial pool or holding her own in a high-class restaurant, discussing art and literature. Influential people like Anne Grandyn, a rich acquaintance of Tinker, seem drawn to her, and when opportunities arise, Katey makes the most of them.
What Katey cannot see is that behind the rules of civility – the social customs humans adopt to make their interactions bearable – is a terrible secret. How she reacts to its unveiling will determine the course of her future.
The author paints a vivid portrait of New York City, slowly emerging from the Depression and unknowingly on the eve of a second world war. His writing is rich in its contrast between elegant hotels and shadowy dives. You can almost taste the olive-laced martinis or smell the cigarette smoke surrounding the jazz combos.
I was eager to read this book after enjoying Towles’s delightful second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. Perhaps I erred in assuming the first one would be equally cheery. So I hasten to conclude that Rules of Civility, while it won’t leave you smiling, is well worth your time.
The novel contains one mild sexual scene and several instances of foul language.