Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
The novel begins with a person we will later come to know well. She is attending an exhibition of photographs – it is 1969 – but the photographs were taken in many years earlier, and this woman recognizes a man who appears in more than one of these pictures. The story beings – and the past is revealed.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles takes place in the year 1938. We ring in the New Year with Katey Kontent and her friend Evelyn Ross, in a jazz bar where they meet Tinker Grey. None of their lives will be unaffected by this meeting.
This is a finely written and paced novel, every word and sentence crafted, and one that tells a terrific story. It is also a novel that express this author’s obvious love of New York City, as Eve says, “doesn’t New York just turn you inside out.”
Katey and Eve, two girls with nothing but good looks and smarts, become part of a circle of wealthy, privileged young people – they take to it like fish to water. These new friends have everything they need, they are taking what they want and having as good a time as any of them know how.
We are on the brink of war but somehow, except for the bright and likeable Wallace who goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, no one is looking past tomorrow. Even Wallace sails away with a first class ticket on the Queen Mary.
The novel is also very much a period piece, the music, the smoking and drinking, the fashions and jewelry, the reading of Agatha Christie novels, all woven seamlessly into the narrative.
The epilogue brings us to another New Year’s Eve, the last night of 1940. “1939 may have brought the beginning of the war in Europe, but in America it brought the end of the depression.” Katey thinks of her friend Eve, savouring the view of the Empire State Building at night, and thinks of life as a “rambling journey”. A journey that may bring a tomorrow full of the surprise of joy, or grief – or life may end before a new day begins.
Rules of Civility ends as it began, with reflection, the end of a first novel that sometimes takes your breath away.