Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

This book, the first novel I have finished in a long time, drew me in from the opening preface through to the ending scene, deepening its evocation of 1930s New York City right up to the closing sentence.  This 2011 first novel offers vibrant, complex characters, and deploys a surprising plot revolving around a romantic love triangle, but without succumbing to cliche. Differences in class and temperament complicate the plot, and twists and turns throughout the novel offer plenty of surprise and delight. A sense of time and place pervades the novel, ultimately enveloping readers in a delightful setting.

The strong and subtle voice belongs to the narrator, Katey Kontent. The male author writes in a woman's voice, which can be problematic, but he mostly avoids common pitfalls and presents Katey as a fully rounded character, writing skillfully and unobtrusively. The author playfully offers glimpses of Katey's character, doling out bits and pieces of her history as the plot advances, and the sharp observations he places in her mouth and pen add to the pleasure of reading. For example, when the main male character, Tinker Grey, learns her name and asks if she is -- content, that is, --  she answers, "not by a long shot." Then, when she ruminates on Tinker's name, she explains how WASPs tend to nickname their children after long-lost trades (Cooper, Smithy, etc.). Both observations offer clues to Katey's and Tinker's character that become significant later in the novel. The third leg of the love triangle, Eve Ross, "one of those surprising beauties from the American Midwest" who came to New York to make her way on her own, fits a type in some ways, but she is more than she appears to be at first, and her strength of character comes through in the end. After a scene involving a meeting at the Rainbow Room between Katey and Eve, Katey sums up Eve as a "butterfly" -- "with two dramatically different colorings -- one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage -- and which can be switched at an instant with a flit of the wings." While Katey's summary may actually be wrong, it is a skillfully extended metaphor, and beautiful in its own way.

Part of the art of crafting a novel is hiding significant facts from readers until their revelation later on. In this sense, Rules of Civility is a classic novel, along the lines of Great Expectations or even an Agatha Christie mystery -- both of which Katey significantly references in the closing chapters. The novel is also fresh and inventive, though, in that the revelations point toward the readers' own presumptions without compromising the characters. I can't be more specific without giving too much away, but suffice to say that this reader is impressed with the way the novelist positions his chess pieces. The setting, too, becomes a part of the story, with 1930s New York casting a shadow over the action. Instead of a brooding presence, this New York is very much alive, in spite of the Depression. The wealthy few who were insulated from the crash still live high in Manhattan, even as working class people face some raw realities. 

My one critique of the novel would be that it doesn't quite register the desperation of the lower classes -- when Katey talks of "inner Californias that were just as abject and unredeeming as the real thing" in the preface, I thought there would be more than just acknowledgement of that economic desperation. Only one character, Tinker's brother Hank, an artist with the WPA, seems to represent these lower-class people, and he is not as desperate as others, refusing support from his banker brother. Blacks and Hispanics play only bit roles. One use of jazz in the novel is to try to bring these people into the story, but it only succeeds in part.

The conclusion satisfies, and the preface and epilogue, along with an appendix, George Washington's "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation," offer an interesting frame for the novel. The last line is a beauty. The quips I have read compare the novel to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Truman Capote, and film noir of the era. While these references represent high praise to some, for me it is higher praise to state that the novel stands on its own two feet as a worthy way to spend your reading dollar and time.
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