Amor Towles’ debut novel appeared immediately on bestseller lists following its release last July.
Not a fluke. A read of this book indicates an important writer is emerging. Mr. Towles, 47, has drawn on a lifetime of writing to deliver a work of literature with perfect pitch.
“Rules of Civility” is a novel set in 1930s uptown Manhattan. Katey, born Katya Kontent from working-class Russian Orthodox Brighton Beach, and her roommate Evelyn Ross find themselves sharing life with the very rich, people for whom The Great Depression was a rumor.
The book opens in 1966 with a middle-aged (and well-married) Katey and her husband cruising a Museum of Modern Art photo exhibit by Walker Evans, candids of people on the streets and subways of Manhattan in the 1930s, shot by the famed photographer using a concealed camera. She recognizes one of the subjects, a man of close acquaintance in those years.
In one photo, he looks down-and-out and in another, very upper-crust. Katey sees that the skid row picture was shot in 1939, a year after the top-of-the-world shot. Likely a casualty of the Depression, her husband comments. No, not exactly, Katey replies.
And we’re off on the back story of life as it was lived during the Swing Era. Two girls scrimping by day and entertained lavishly, effortlessly at night by the scions of really old money.
The title is taken from 110 rules of civility penned by the up and coming George Washington in the early 18th century. Many are head-shakers today, but Rule 110 advises: “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
The novel is a study of manners as they were 200 years later but more importantly, examines its characters’ personal and sometimes murky ethical codes. Tricky business when writing about one of the more existential periods of American life. Our data-driven culture undervalues the importance of intuition and the luck of the draw – timing, if you will – but Mr. Towles’ characters do not.
As a matter of this reviewer’s policy, we don’t reveal plots and outcomes in these reviews. Spoils the read. I’ll tell you this: it’s a good yarn with dialog and insights that make you wish you’d said that. But the story is only half the value of this book to this reader.
For one thing, Mr. Towles, who summers in West Chop and winters at an investment bank in Manhattan, holds a masters in English from Stanford and retained what he studied. He uses relevant literary allusions seamlessly and graciously to advance the themes of his novel. For example, Walden’s exhortations to simple living and T.S. Eliot’s world-weary Prufrock fold into the characters’ life views. I understand our literary lions more completely as a result of reading “Rules of Civility.”
For another, Mr. Towles has an eye for historical accuracy of the era. As a child of Depression-darkened children, I found myself thinking, “Great story but that’s not what the 1930s were like.” Not so fast, Mr. Towles cautioned during a phone conversation last week.
“The Depression has obvious references but beyond that, at same time, the 1930s were a period of incredible change. Glamour and optimism also exists. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies, the Marx brothers, Swing music came of age. If you gave three artifacts such as those to an alien, say, there is no way you’d come up with a Depression,” he said.
Ah, but what about Katey, a character who could stand as a poster girl for the strong and independent Millennial woman, antithetical to our notion of the 1930s loyal helpmate by the hearth?
“Women had broken out in the 1930s, taking jobs during the run up to World War II. Katey is quite like early Katharine Hepburn, Ayn Rand, Amelia Earhart. Eleanor Roosevelt was the public spokesperson in FDR’s presidency.
“In the late 30s films, women were the most sophisticated characters in the films. Look at ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington.’ In that movie, Jimmy Stewart was naive. Jean Arthur was the tough, cynical reporter who showed the way. They avoided the [traditional] expectations for women.
“Sexual mores were changing. Helen Gurley Brown wrote ‘Sex and The Single Girl’ in 1962 but it was based on her experiences in the ’30s and ’40s. We assume it wasn’t like that in the 30s, because we are looking through the prism of the 1950s – ‘Father Knows Best’ and Mrs. Cleaver [from the TV series, 'Leave It To Beaver'].”
So there you have it. Mr. Towles has provided a great read and an opportunity for learning and understanding that is perfectly appropriate to our current social condition.