Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Scene: New York City, 1966 – an elderly couple, Katey and Val, are at a gallery viewing of photographs, all taken of passengers on the subway over many years. The same man occurs in two photos, but in obviously different circumstances years apart. Katey recognises him – it’s Tinker Grey… which takes her back to New Year’s Eve 1937 and the first time she met him.
Katey is a New Yorker, born of Russian stock, and just at the beginning of her career – starting out as a secretary and rooming at Mrs Martindale’s boarding house with her roommate Eve. Eve is blonde and from Iowa, moved to the city to find fame and fortune. New Year’s Eve 1937 sees them in a jazz club down to their last nickels when a tall striking man in a cashmere coat walks in the door. Eve bags him and thus the girls meet Theodore ‘Tinker’ Grey and one of the seminal years of Kate’s life will begin.
Although Eve ends up with Tinker, you constantly get the feeling that he’d rather be with Katey; but after a car crash a few weeks later in which Tinker was driving and Eve was injured, he felt his duty was to look after Eve. We follow this year of ups and downs with all three of them, through Katey’s eyes. Katey is the archetypal good girl made good – we see her elevated from the typing pool to Editor’s assistant, she’s not afraid to work hard, and is well read. Katey is not averse to having fun though, and with Tinker off limits, she nearly finds love with the lovely Wallace Wolcott. He may have New England money, but he needs a real purpose in life and leaves to go fight in Spain. Meanwhile Tinker and Eve are doing their best impressions of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in Europe. Katey remains puzzled by Tinker though – there are things about him that don’t ring true, and it will take the end of Eve and his relationship, and some hard truths that Katey discovers to find out the truth at the end of the year.
Maybe it’s because New Yorkers appear to live and work in a totally faster gear to the rest of us, but it felt as if there was a lifetime crammed into this novel – but what a life! The period setting was irresistible to me, full of jazz, cocktails and parties. Katey and Eve may have done well to land in the set with which they mix, but Katey never forgets where she comes from, having her feet firmly on the ground – well, for most of the time. Seeing it all through her eyes shows the others’ bad behaviour for what it was, but I almost shed a tear for poor Wallace though, who hadn’t a single bad bone in his body.
This novel had more than a hint of Mad Men about it for me, done Great Gatsby style. Katey reminded me very much of Peggy Olsen in the TV series, whereas Tinker and Eve could have been Dick Diver and Nicole from Tender is the Night – doomed from the start. Hearing the story from Eve’s point of view would have been terribly different and frankly boring; Katey is by far the more interesting character, and her story makes for a fine debut novel indeed. (9/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, 2011, Sceptre, paperback, 352 pages