The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation – 110 of them! – were
compiled by none other than George Washington when he was a teenager. They’re listed in the appendix of the book. I didn't read all 110. I got the gist of the list from the first 10 or 12. They could be applied to the upper levels of society, the well-heeled, the trust fund twentysomethings of the 18th, the 19th, the 20th or the 21st century.
Back to the book: Scene One: October, 1966. A museum exhibit of photographs taken in the late 1930s in New York’s subways. A 50ish couple wander slowly from picture to picture. She spots a photo of someone she knows and begins recalling one year – 1938 – when she was a young career girl in New York City.
Pre-war, post-Depression Manhattan was pulsing with bright colors and cool jazz and flirty fashions and hard liquor -- lots of hard liquor. Excitement. Sophistication.
But New York society was layered. The layers intersected and overlapped.
Katey Kontent’s layer is secretarial pools; six-story walk-up apartments; flapper jackets; Irish bars with “No Ladies” signs posted in the window; the smell of garlic in stairwells and hallways; Bergdorf’s fantastic seasonal window displays; and Agatha Christie’s newest Hercule Poirot mystery.
Katey gets caught up – or deliberately steps up to – the next layer, which includes gin martinis in tall stemmed glasses; basement jazz clubs; slinky satin bias-cut dresses; cigarette smoke; and impromptu
party games: “What were you afraid of when you were a kid?” “What did you always want that your parents never gave you?” “What is your favorite day of the year?”
She is introduced to the uppermost layer, which is casually littered with Gatsbyesque flotsam and jetsam: cashmere coats; people with WASPy nicknames like Tinker and Bucky and Bitsy and Wellie; silver flasks in leather sheaths; emerald earrings the size of gumdrops; Mies van der Rohe chairs; black-tie dinners; Bentleys and Rolls-Royces with tinted windows and full-time chauffeurs; and expansive parties in the Hamptons.
Katey climbs. She’s a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn, but she’s drawn like a moth to the bright lights. She is intelligent and pretty and street-smart and extraordinarily well-read. She has mastered clever chatter and witty one-liners.
Rules of Civility is the story of three ambitious twentysomethings – Katie, Eve and Tinker – who
aspire to the upper levels of New York society. The plot involves how each climbed and what happens because of his or her ascent.
The writing is snappy and crisp. The characters are well-conceived and multi-layered and New York City is a character, itself. The plot curls like smoke, catching the reader in surprising but well thought-out twists. The result is a delightful first novel.
Amor Towles is a graduate of Yale University and he earned a master's degree in English from Stanford University. He’s a principal in an investment firm and a resident of Manhattan. I hope he’s taking a sabbatical and working on his next novel.
Four and a half stars out of four.