“One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements.”
This is one novel I wish I’d listened to in audiobook – and I may try to get it in audio just so that I can. Towles has chosen to set his social study in carefree late 1930s Manhattan, choosing as his heroine a witty, smart, ahead of her time daughter of a Russian immigrant, Katya (now Katey) Kontent. Katey lives in Mrs Martingale’s boarding house with Evey Ross, and the two of them go out for New Year’s Eve on 1937 and befriend Tinker Grey, a young socialite banker. An awkward double romance develops but when Evey is disabled in a winter accident, Tinker throws his lot in with her. Katey moves on through New York society but every road seems to lead her back to Tinker eventually.
Towles has chosen to frame his story through the perspective of Katey as an older woman, reminded of the escapades of her youth by a photographic exhibition she attends with her husband. The first person narrative is slightly limiting, but by having Katey as the sensible one and Evey as the one whom trouble follows, we do of course get an interesting story. And this is an era with which I am entirely unacquainted! Most of my reading is set in pre-1900 or 1960+. The glamour and optimism of the late 30s in the USA, Manhattan before cell phones and yellow taxis and fear of terrorism, even the immigrant experience of the USA (it’s only really in Daughter of Fortune and Snow Falling on Cedars that I have run across it before) – all are new to me in literature and they were wonderful.
One of the things I love about reading on the Kindle is how easy it is to highlight passages and then come back to them when I am writing the review. Towles has a beautiful writing style, using words and phrases like “fabdabulous”, “the wine was older than me” and “a burgeoning taste for flawlessness”. Some of the ones I marked as I went through Rules of Civility:
On starting on page 104 of a Hemingway novel:
“Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way”
“He felt elaborately around the bag until he brought out a cinnamon donut perched upright on his fingertips. Which, as it turns out, is all it takes to secure a place in my affections.”
“It’s terrific, I admitted. But I can’t help thinking how much better it would look on you, given the color of your hair. If I may be so bold, Miss Kontent, the color of my hair is available to you on the second floor.”
“At peace with the notion that he would join them soon enough in that circle of Elysium reserved for plot and substance and the judicious use of the semicolon” possibly my favourite book quote ever.
Well worth the read. Get your hands on a copy if you can, and even better if it’s in audio!