Saturday, January 19, 2013

Late Thirties in Manhattan

Rules of Civility
Rules of Civility

“In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.”  ― Amor Towles, Rules of Civility

A young woman on the way up meets a man who seems to be near the pinnacle for it's his birthright and only her aspiration. Amor Towles scintillating first novel encompasses this simple story arc and much more as it reveals the penultimate year of the thirties as it was for the young and restless in Manhattan. The narrator/heroine is Katey Kontent (with the emphasis on the last syllable) and the characters she meets on her way up include her roommate Eve, a man who appears to be made of patrician blood, Tinker Grey, Tinker's brother Henry and many others in the space of a year. Katey is a bright, attractive and ambitious young woman whose relationships with her insecure roommate and the privileged Adonis they meet in a jazz club begin simply but gain in complexity as both personal tragedies and world events intervene in their lives. Katey is a Brooklyn girl and her boardinghouse mate Eve is a Midwestern beauty. Together they are expert flirts who become an instant, inseparable threesome with mysterious young banker Tinker Grey. With him, they hit all the hot nightspots and consume much alcohol. Katey's life in particular echoes that of one of Dicken's most famous, beloved my many, literary narrators of the previous century--the explicit references to Great Expectations abound. Strong-willed Katey works her way up the career ladder, from secretarial job on Wall Street to publisher’s assistant at Condé Nast, forging friendships with society types and not allowing social niceties to stand in her way. But this is just one facet of her rise among the high rises of a Manhattan that show off its night life from jazz clubs to speak-easies. What impressed this reader was Katey's uncompromising purpose through it all as she searched for her own personal truth.
Even more appealing was Tinker's fascination with nature as found in the writings of Henry David Thoreau. This was emblematic of his own personal turmoil that seemed to be a complex mix of the age old nature versus nurture battle superimposed upon a larger struggle between Nature and Civilization. Implicit in all of this are the echoes of Gatsby. All the characters are beautifully drawn, the dialogue is sharp and Towles manages to avoid unnecessary sentimentality in the period pieces. The denouement of Katey's civilized life along with those of the friends she makes over the course of this one year in the late thirties makes this novel an exceptional one. I consider myself fortunate to have begun my new year of reading with such a thoughtful, literary, and evocative novel.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Penguin Books, 2011

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