Late in Rules of Civility, Amor Towles’ accomplished debut, Katey Kontent defends Great Expectations against an acquaintance who prefers Virginia Woolf. It’s an ironic preference. Ten pages later this acquaintance is revealed to be Katey’s secret benefactor, and she’s perhaps most responsible for making this new Jazz Age novel owe just as much to Dickens as Fitzgerald.
Can a literary novel have twists? Towles thinks so.
Narrated by the 25-year-old Katey, the story opens in a Greenwich Village jazz bar as she and Eve, her Midwestern boarding house roommate, compete over the eligible Tinker Grey. Katey seems to win but a car accident indebts Tinker to Eve, and during her convalescence a romance blooms. Or has it? Like the origins of his wealth, Tinker is secretive about the contents of his heart and much of the novel is spent anticipating the love triangle’s conclusion. Meanwhile Katey enters a world in which everyone seems to know Tinker. At an Oyster Bay party she coincidentally bumps into Wallace Wolcott, Tinker’s best friend and a potential flame. In an Irish dive she meets Henry Grey, a painter and Tinker’s estranged brother. And as she keeps befriending the prejet jet-set she mysteriously lucks into a job at Gotham, a new Condo Nest publication likely modeled on The New Yorker.
If we keep reading because Towles has written that rare thing, a fast-paced literary novel, we enjoy it because Katey is so compelling. She plays bridge against fictional partners. She writes a ransom note for Tinker’s lighter. Her concerns are our concerns. “The romantic interplay that we were having wasn’t the real game—it was a modified version of the game. It was a version invented for two friends so that they can get some practice and pass the time divertingly while they wait in the station for their train to arrive.” Friends with benefits?
Towel’s sharp dialogue also betrays a contemporary sensibility. “Have you been hunting down south, Kate?” “I’ve never been hunting in any direction.” And through using a narrator capable of existing in any time, Rules of Civility avoids one of historical fiction’s more common problems: an over-reliance on atmosphere. Though the novel has all the people and landmarks of a long lost New York, they’re seen through the fully imagined Katey. The maitre d’ at Club 21 says “the word please as if it were a sentence unto itself.” A Condo Nest editor has a “hatred of all things purple (royalty, plums, fancy prose).” New York “comes about—like a weather vane—or the head of a cobra. Time tells which.”
And it’s this kind of decidedly traditional writing and storytelling that makes Rules of Civility so enjoyable—even if its characters prefer the modernists. [John Blahnik]
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