Rules of Civility – Amor Towles
“Every Action in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”
On New Year’s Eve 1937, just as America puts the Great Depression in its rearview and Europe is dangerously moving towards war, Katey Kontent and Eve Ross decide to enjoy the New Year celebrations in a New York Jazz Club. With a few dollars and a tight schedule of drinks, their evening seems quite limited, that is until Theodore ‘Tinker’ Grey, a young city banker, enters the club, and the group becomes a threesome.
Katey and Evey are two young women full of expectation and adventure, particularly Eve with her boundless energy, as they chase the party scene in New York City. As their friendship with Tinker grows, so does their access to high society. There is sexual tension between the three, and it doesn’t help that Evey laid down a marker for Tinker from day one. Relationships and life can throw unexpected challenges, and the year ahead has some dramatic twists. Personally, I felt a sense of loneliness with each character, that they were searching for something deeper and meaningful in their lives, but it was camouflaged by the dazzling opportunities of high society. There are moments of humour, and Katey can be pretty witty and sarcastic with her language. Shockingly I couldn’t connect with any of these characters, and yes, this is the same author that gave us Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow.
The only fascinating and loveable character in the novel is New York City. My mind’s eye sees it in terms of those black and white photographs that adorn any historical album and which are touted in the preface of this novel as a photo exhibition of the NYC subway from Walker Evans. There is a Great Gatsby vibe throughout, showing in its atmosphere and ramifications of privilege and belonging. The writing is beautiful, and the time and place are brought to life with rich and expressive images.
Amor Towles frequently recognises other works in his novels and creates opportunities to weave them into his story. In this case, the major reference is to the 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, written by a young George Washington. Scanning the rules of civility in the book’s Appendix, I feel modern society has little chance of complying with many of them.
I read this book with my Buddy Ceecee, and as always it is such a pleasure and rewarding experience. We have, however, been searching for a 5-star book since our tremendous success with A Gentleman in Moscow. Selecting Rules of Civility by the same author felt like being awarded a last-minute penalty kick with their goalkeeper missing, only to find someone stole the ball. In this case, the characters. The only good outcome is that Ceecee and I will need to double our efforts to find that next elusive 5-star book.
“Labour to keep alive in your Breast that little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.”