Book Review: “Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles
I thought the first couple of pages were genius – especially the parallels between Manhattan in the 1930s and the Manhattan of 9/11 and beyond – very subtly done. This was all to introduce a “chastened” society, captured (in real life) by Walker Evans in a photographic collection: ‘Many Are Called”.
The narrator, visiting the exhibition in the 60s is swept back to her youth and the book is an account of her life in 1938.
This novel is entirely dependent on its setting. It is a novel about New York more than it is about Katey, our protagonist. She goes to bars symbolic of various immigrant communities, she lives with the working class, socializes with the rich, works with the media and manages to rub shoulders with a large array of people.
Many may be called, but few are chosen – and we are taken through Katey’s interactions with a few: Eve, her roommate; Tinker Grey, their mutual friend, Wallace, a fine upstanding citizen; Dickie, a romantic interlude and Anne Grandyn, the twist in the plot.
So, there was a great setting both in time and place, a variety of characters – but where this book dipped was with the plot. Unless it was me. Maybe my concentration skipped a bit – if you’ve read it please do fill me in – there is this bit where Katey takes it in her head to resign? I didn’t really understand why. Our protagonist didn’t really have a goal, as far as I could see, so it was hard to root for her in achieving it – I think that is what I missed in reading this book.
Ironically, for a plot-free book, there were a couple of good plot twists. I was expecting a tortured love triangle to form – but a milk truck dashed it to pieces before any tension built up. The fall out from that was kind of tragic but believeable and the events of the novel ticked over alright. The other plot twist was the kind of deux ex machina role of Ann Grandyn. Which was a bit, I dunno, twisted.
However, it all ends well, as Tinker finds his true self, our protagonist moves on, Eve goes to Hollywood and, well apart from poor old Wallace… it’s a kind of bland ho-hum of an ending – not the gripping denoument that Katey, a fan of Agatha Christie, would have liked, I am sure.
But I will forgive this book a lot. Plenty of vivid descriptions of food and drink, plenty of semi-literary observational quips and a clear “deep thought” given at the end – Towles provides us with a framework through which to process the randomness of the events.
“… life is less like a journey than it is a game of honeymoon bridge. 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 and revisions – we draw a 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…”
In this image, Towles is making alluding to T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”, perhaps to this section in particular:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the making of toast and tea.
In a way, then, this is a really middle-aged book; the die is cast: things are the way they are – because of the way things were.
The irony is that our protagonist pretty much discarded all her cards dealt in 1938 and ended up quite happy in the 1960s having a good old reminisce about the fortunes of her old friend Tinker Grey. So I suppose she’s living by default – no bad thing, in this context.
Great book to read on a flight to New York though 🙂