The framing prologue and epilogue of Rules of Civility take place almost thirty years after the primary plot, at a retrospective exhibit of a photographer’s long and illustrious career; two photographs, “before” and “after” shots of someone the narrator knew, prompt a flood of memories and explanations. The book itself might be summed up as “a year in the life of a working girl in Manhattan which, while exciting, does not prove entirely influential on the rest of her life”.
On New Year’s Eve of 1937, Katy Kontent and her boardinghouse roommate, Evey, are out making what celebrations they can with the three dollars they could scrape up between them. Sipping drinks in a bar that’s seedy in its clientele but extremely innovative in its choice of jazz musicians1, they’re more than slightly startled when an obviously wealthy cultured gentleman casually tosses his cashmere topcoat over a chair nominally belonging to their table. The man apologizes, buys them a drink and things proceed from there. The man, a banker named Tinker Grey, squires Katy and Evey around town in return for their hospitality on New Year’s Eve…but on their way home, they’re caught in a ghastly car crash: all three survive, but Evey is catapulted through the windshield. After several days in a coma and as much reconstructive surgery as was available in 1938, Evey is released from the hospital and Tinker takes her to his apartment for recuperation. Their friendship gets closer; everyone but Evey assumes the two are in love until Tinker proposes…at which point Evey makes her way, with a few falterings, to Los Angeles. Overall, it’s not a bad year for Katey–she has a decent time with Tinker’s friend, Wallace, until he goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and she ends up working for a startup magazine akin to Vogue. Thirty years later, her memories of that year are as vanished as the Jazz Age itself though.
A first person narrative by a female protagonist written by a male author, this is most certainly not chicklit. It’s about the brittle nature of high society, the self-assurance that money, education and breeding bring and what those with aspirations will do and give to gain an appearance of same. Tinker isn’t evil or misleading–he never lies outright–but he is not what he appears and what he leaves unsaid to Katey proves to not only rupture their friendship but change his own life completely as a result of that rupture. I too miss the characters–it’s one of the few books I’ve read recently which I promptly REread to see if I could somehow squeeze more from the words on the page.
As with all books, tastes vary. If you like Louis Auchincloss, you might like Rules of Civility (and vice versa). If you liked the plot and setting of The Great Gatsby, you also might want to give Towles’ book a try; there are similar themes of things not being what they seem. That said, Rules of Civility is very much literature’s literature; if you like earthier stuff, rural settings, common talk, simple plots…give this a miss. Life’s too short to read books you won’t like, and this is better left for those who like something to think about underlying their novels.
1who won’t be fully appreciated for another 20 years themselves