Upon looking at the cover of this book, and yes I judge books by their covers, as do you (you’re a liar if you say you don’t!), all I could think of was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In all honesty, that’s not a bad assumption. The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles is about Katey, a young New Yorker, and her life in the year 1938 navigating the upper echelons of the rich.
The Depression hit and slowly the Manhattan economy is coming back, but for some people, the money never ran out. Welcome to the world that Katey and her friend Eve find themselves thrown into after by chance meeting a rich young banker, Tinker. Katey may be a secretary, but suddenly new opportunities, fabulous parties, and the crème de la crème of New York are waiting to discover her. In this year long journey, we meet a number of characters who introduce the reader to the upper crust of late 1930s society and we watch as Katey ascends the ladder.
As I read this book, I saw visions of fabulously dressed people dancing the Charleston across the page. Very Gatsby-ish indeed! There were numerous reminders of Fitzgerald, the first being the subject matter and the second being the characters. It’s about the rich and those who are lucky enough not only to look in on them, but actually become a part of their elite society. Katey is a young woman who can hold her own and is not intimidated or in awe of those above her in station. She has no problem fitting in with her new-found friends. Katey is a character reminiscent of Nick from The Great Gatsby. She isn’t rich, she isn’t from an age old society family, but she happens to meet the right people. She sees the ups and downs of how the other half lives and then is able to make her way out nearly unscathed. I enjoyed the vivid images of old New York: the stores, bars, and apartments. Towles made it easy to imagine the glamor of the time period, while simultaneously showing the regular working class side of the city.
The other characters in this book have strong voices. It isn’t often that you find a book where the secondary characters can stand on their own, and Towles wrote his characters so they were rounded. People are complicated and he had no problem with exploring their flaws. There were times when he suddenly went on winding monologues about different sports, places, or activities. They added to an understanding of the period and the people, but I’d think to myself, “Is the author just trying to be stylish?”. If he was, he did it damn well and I applaud his first novel.
If you enjoy literary fiction, the life of the rich and fabulous, and this novel, here are some suggestions:
The follow up to The Rules of Civility, this novel follows Eve, after she heads to California and looks at her life amongst the heart of Old Hollywood. (Note-this is a kindle single, available only through Amazon for the Kindle and Kindle applications)
Much like Rules this novel takes place in New York City in the 1920s/30s. It’s about a young Louise Brooks, the soon to be silent movie star, and her chaperone, Cora, who travel to New York where they discover the rapidly changing city and society.
Although still historical fiction, this novel is a bit of a flight from Rules, but still has well developed characters and a strong sense of place. In the Old West, the reader gets to meet a young Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp before they were famous.