Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility
Amor Towles

First Sentence
"On the night of October 4th, 1966, Val and I, both in late middle age, attended the opening of
Many Are Called at the Museum of Modern Art--the first exhibit of the portraits taken by Walker Evans in the late 1930s on the New York City subways with a hidden camera."
Publisher's Description:
The New York Times bestselling novel that "enchants on first reading and only improves on the second" (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

This sophisticated and entertaining first novel presents the story of a young woman whose life is on the brink of transformation.  On the last night of 1937, twenty-five year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker, happens to sit down at the neighboring table.  This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a year-long journey into the upper echelons of New York Society--where she will have to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve.  With its sparkling depiction of New York's social strata, its intricate imagery and themes, and its immensely appealing characters, "Rules of Civility" won the hearts of readers and critics alike. (Published 2011)

Dear Reader,
I finished this book over a week ago, but haven’t had a chance to sit down to write a review until now. That frustrates me, because I feel like the book has already faded enough from my mind that I am not sure my review will do it justice.  However, I’ll certainly give it a stab!  Because the fact that it’s not still pressingly fresh in my mind does not mean it wasn't good.

I really enjoyed this book.  I was intrigued by the framing of the story: the protagonist begins her story in the 1960s, when she stumbles across a photograph which throws her suddenly and full-force back into a life she had long since left - and, until then, forgotten.  From then on, the book follows the story of her adventures during the late 1930s.  

And, adventures they were!  Katey is the epitome of the flapper girl, in my mind: young, single, self-sufficient, adventurous, and full of gumption.  She gets into adventures which at first surprised me, because of her somewhat reserved and introverted personality.  However, as the character developed and took shape, I was able to see that Katey really did crave adventure, novelty, and excitement.  Specifically because it was somewhat contrary to her true nature, I think.  The reader could watch her force herself to step outside of her comfort zone (even while she was perhaps unconscious of this not being really her) on a regular basis.  Perhaps this was partly because she was encouraged in this by her close more wild friend, Eve.  Perhaps it was partly because she wanted to be like Eve, daring and (seemingly) carefree.

The relationships in this book are complex, and often unexpected the way they work out.  You might think one person is a close friend of Katey’s, when in fact she barely knows them.  Another shows himself to be a better person than you first expected, and someone Katey can truly count on.  The complex characters are probably the heart of the book, and they truly create whatever story seems to flow around them.  The characters are larger than the lives that flow around them.  

I loved the setting - New York City in the late 30s - and the truly Golden Age feel of it all; I could see Art Deco abounding in my mind’s eye, and hear F. Scott Fitzgerald’s influence echoing through the city.  A book that will truly stick with me for a while.

Happy reading!,

P.S. I really did love the framing of the story within the gorgeous and striking covert subway photographs of Walker Evans; what a brilliant way to develop the story.  I wonder if the author saw the images (and Washington’s notes on civility) and the novel blossomed in his mind from that seed.

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