Rules of Civility
As a debut novel, Rules of Civility is a tour de force. Breathtaking in its capture of 1938 New York City, both its wealthy gentry and nouveau riche, and its evocation of two unusually intelligent secretaries who find themselves swept up into the rarefied world of Wall Street bankers, elite publishing houses, jazz clubs and Long Island house parties, it takes the reader into a world that most of us have only glimpsed in old black and white movies. This removal to a world long disappeared is seamless and elegantly told. The writing has already been compared to that of Fitzgerald, Capote and Edith Wharton. Given the wealth of period details and the depth of characterization of New York society at its best and worst, I’d have to make the comparison with Wharton, had she lived a generation later.
One of the remarkable aspects of this hugely successful novel is the fact that it’s told in the voice of one of the two main characters, a young woman, Katey Kontent, the daughter of Russian immigrants. What makes that so remarkable? The author, Amor Towles, is a man. He has created and told his story through the voice of one of the most intriguingly thoughtful and believable heroines in recent years. The understated portrayal of these years of Katey’s life and loves and of the impact of choices she and others make is mesmerizing, resonating long after I’d finished reading. Towles will be hard-pressed to equal his debut achievement, but let’s hope he tries.