Rules of Civility
by Amor Towles
This is a really lovely book. I picked it up because of the cover photo– doesn’t it make you nostalgic for a bygone era of elegance we’ll never experience? Why don’t we dress like that? Why don’t we lounge like that?
And inside are treasures. The writing is polished and just decorative enough to catch the eye without stealing the show, like a faceted onyx pendant hung from a string of lustrous pearls. The show, of course, is the characters. They’re us, dimensional and genuine, only more charming and sophisticated than we know how to pull off.
The story begins in 1966, with narratrix Kate Kontent attending Many Are Called, the MOMA art exhibit of Walker Evans’ undercover subway photo series from the late 1930s.
Kate sees two photographs of her old friend Tinker Gray capturing his “riches to rags” transformation back in 1938, and begins her reminiscence with how they met in a jazz club on “the last night of 1937.”
Our neighbor looked like a tourist getting directions from a gendarme. Happening to make eye contact with me, he made a bewildered face for my benefit. I laughed and he laughed back.
—Is there a melody in there?
I edged my chair a little closer, as if I hadn’t quite heard him. I leaned at an angle five degrees less acute than the waitress had.
—I was wondering if there’s a melody in there.
—It just went out for a smoke. It’ll be back in a minute. But I take it that you don’t come here for the music.
—Is it obvious? he asked with a sheepish smile. I’m actually looking for my brother. He’s the jazz fan.
From across the table I could hear Eve’s eyelashes flittering. A cashmere coat and a New Year’s date with a sibling. What more did a girl need to know?
I like Kate. A lot. She was a Holly Golightly for her time. Maybe one of the reasons the story resonated with me was because of how much like the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s it was. AND how much it reminded me of my own Golightly stint in New York in the 90s. Like Kate and Eve, my friends and I worked hard at our jobs to (not quite) make ends meet, sharing dresses and addresses of clubs offering free entertainment and hors d’ouevres.
“On Friday nights, we let boys that we had no intention of kissing buy us drinks, and in exchange for dinner we kissed a few that we had no intention of kissing twice.”
There’s a lot to like here in addition to the shimmery characters. Towles writes the lady’s perspective well. Lovely descriptions of food and ambience, references to great literature in the narrative, and clever chapter titles add panache to the already graceful and gently ironic writing style.
If the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say. This is one of the finer maxims that I’ve discovered in life. And you can have it, since it’s been of no use to me.
As it turns out, Towles has a lot of right things to say. Last month saw the release of a second novel about Kate’s friend, Eve in Hollywood. I hope Eve proves to be as sparkly a protagonist as Kate.