Rules of Civility, Amor Towles. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.
Summary: The year that changed the life of a young woman in New York, remembered when photographs trigger a flashback twenty-eight years later.
Katey and her husband Val are part of the social elite at an exhibition opening at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. For the first time, photographs taken by Walker Evans on New York’s subways in the late 1930’s are on exhibit. Among those photos are two of him. One elegantly dressed, a portrait of subdued power. The other, more gaunt in the tattered clothes of a laborer, but with a smile. Tinker Grey. And it brings back the year in between and how Katey’s life changed, beginning her rise from a working class immigrant background.
At the end of 1937, Katey and her roommate Eve decide to do the town for New Years. Eve is from the midwest with high hopes. Katya, now Katey Kontent (accent on the second syllable) is working in a secretarial pool for a New York law firm, living by her wits and struggling to make ends meet, but also enjoying the city. They are in a jazz club and in walks Tinker Grey in a cashmere coat. They end up ringing in the New Year, and Tinker leaves his monogrammed lighter behind, giving them a chance to see him again. A subsequent night on the town ends in an accident leaving Eve with leg injuries and a scar. Tinker offers his home to recover. They fall in love, and Katey is nudged out.
It’s a story that traces Katey’s year of 1938 in her voice, one that is whip-smart and shrewd. Both her external and internal dialogue make this book, a feat for a male writer. We see her rise from the secretarial pool to editorial assistant for a new magazine launched by the publisher of Conde’ Nast. She recounts the nights at the clubs, the jazz of the Thirties, and her relationships with Wallace Wolcott and Dicky Vanderwhile, the latter on the rebound from one with Tinker Grey after Eve refused to marry him and went to Hollywood. One of the most interesting characters is Anne Grandyn, whose wealth helped make Tinker. She made him in other ways, and unbeknownst to Katey, helps make her as well. Instead of being a rival for Tinker, in an odd way, she is an ally.
Meanwhile Tinker’s life unravels. From Central Park, he moves to a flop house, in some ways following his late artist brother–and hence that second picture in the gallery. And yet the move in his life is from a learned upper crust civility, schooled by George Washington’s The Rules of Civility to rediscovery of the New York he loved best.
Not only does Towles do a masterful job at writing in a woman’s voice, he captures the resurgence of New York on the eve of World War Two as the country climbed out of the Depression. He explores questions of class and upward mobility. Both Tinker and Katey rise from modest beginnings on their wits, yet come to different ends. We wonder if the 1966 Katey, confronted with the images of Tinker, wonders about the life she’s embraced. Or perhaps she was reminded of the year in which her life turned, the gains and the losses, and the course that was set.
I went back to read this after reading Towles’s masterful A Gentleman in Moscow earlier this year. It is hard to believe this is a first novel. So often, we just live our lives. In both of Towles’s works, we see characters who not only live their lives, but, through circumstances, are brought to reflect upon their course and what they’ve meant, inviting the reader to do the same.