Book review: Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility

Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility (2011)

As an enthusiast of his A Gentleman in Moscow (2016), I wanted to totally enjoy this earlier effort of the author’s, but its sketchy conclusion left me wanting.

Enjoyable for the most part, until the end

Until the ending (and after the first two chapters), I was entirely enthralled by this time-travel to New Year’s Eve, 1938 and the years directly after in Manhattan. Through Towles’ extraordinary narrator Katey Content (accent on the second syllable), the reader can view a panorama of New York City particular time and place, from the grubby Brighton Beach of Katey’s youth, to the working class rooming house where women working as subservients in this the male-dominated world could afford to live, to the dizzying heights of the upper East Side haute bourgeoise to which she (spoiler alert) ascends. As he does in Gentleman, Towles excels in the telling period detail.

The period details, like the fashions in cocktails and wardrobes, the build up to war in Europe, and the verbal expressions characters use, feel researched and authentic. Those who wish to dive into the Manhattan of the time, with its growing celebrity culture, its jazz and ethnic nightlife, its release of formerly repressed feminine figures, its privileged glimpses into the lives of WASP homes and retreats, will enjoy this read.

Until the end, probably.

That’s when the Gatsby-esque figure of Tinker Grey, who goes from rags to riches to rags again becomes obscure, along with the narrative clarity Towles has established up until then. It’s as though the author wanted to bring his amazingly convincing narrative from a female perspective to a convenient, but not a satisfying, close.

The reader is left to wonder:

  • How was it that Katey grew up in a working class neighborhood and became incredibly literate and wise? It’s never explained–her childhood and education prior to 1937.
  • What has happened to Hank, brother of Tinker, in the years of WWII. Katey has a fortuitous meeting with him on New Year’s Eve 1941, before the US is involved, and says nothing further about him.
  • Katey mentions that she meets Tinker once more, in 1966. And although she mentions the precise place of their meeting–the Metropolitan Museum of Artshe says naught about what transpired, what he has been doing for the last thirty years. Nothing!

Still, the quality of the foreplay has been of such quality and duration that the reader is not disappointed at the lack of a satisfying climax. Towles has provided a window into an interesting social milieu that satisfies those looking for a convincing portrayal of life in the city that didn’t sleep, even or especially at a crucial historical moment.

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