New Years Eve 1937; Katey Kontent and her boardinghouse roommate Evie Ross are listening to a jazz quartet in New York when they meet the apparently wealthy Tinker Grey. This meeting of chance sets both of them on a path to the highest ranks of glamorous New York society during the inter-war period. A secretary and daughter of Russian immigrants, Katey's new connections soon lead to lots of opportunities for both her career and her personal life. But her close friendship with Evie is strained by circumstance and by the relationship both girls have with the charismatic Tinker, who isn't quite all he seems.
Rules of Civility is worth reading for the sense of time and place it evokes alone. Every time I picked it up, I was transported to swinging New York, with all it's flapper dresses, midnight parties and Gatsby-esque mansions. I just adored losing myself completely in the past and Towles effortlessly transports you back in time in a completely seamless way. The descriptions were so good that at times I felt as though I was watching a movie rather than reading a book (and a fabulous movie it would make too).
Another strength of the book was the main character, Katey. She's smart and sarcastic, but there is a touch of vulnerability about her too, that makes her easy to relate to. She has a lot of ups and downs throughout the course of the novel and I really found myself rooting for her as she came across as completely real. I liked that Katey was quite secretive as a narrator; Towles leaves it up to us to read between the lines in order to work out what she really thinks and feels.
Although the beginning and ending of Rules of Civility were completely engaging, I did find that the middle sections dragged a bit. There were a lot of secondary characters introduced, a lot of people that Katey met at parties, and it was hard to keep them straight at times. Evie and Tinker disappear off page for a large part of the middle of the book, and their absence makes the plot a bit duller. The middle was just missing the spark of the beginning and end.
Rules of Civility is a well written book, evocative of 1930s New York. You will like it if:
- You like F. Scott Fitzgerald (particularly The Great Gatsby).
- You enjoy well written historical fiction.
- You love the glamour and decadence of the inter-war period.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2011
My Edition: Sceptre, 2012
Score: 4 out of 5