Viking, $26.95, 335 pages
Rules of Civility is set during a single year, an eventful 1938. Kate/Katherine/Katie, her persona changes as she ebbs or flows within high society, is a working class girl doing a passable job of making ends meet as a secretary in Depression-era New York. She and Evie/Evelyn/Eve make a new friend in a jazz club on New Years Eve, a young, rich and handsome banker named Theodore, Tinker to his friends. Tinker introduces them to a lifestyle that’s alien but accessible, as long as one comes from the right families, or have the right friends.
It’s the lessons that Kate learns, and the way she navigates this world, with its half-understood rules, and impeccable manners, that makes this debut novel shine. It’s only through the lens of time and distance, Kate’s reminiscences of 1938, from the perspective of 1966, that Kate begins to understand that the relationships she’s formed, aren’t always what she thinks they are, for good or ill.
The obvious comparison would be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with Katie as the be-spatted narrator, a not too bad comparison, for a first time novelist. Amor Towles has written a wonderful book, with sharp, witty dialog, featuring a strong female protagonist. Its primary lesson, that we only become who we are meant to be, once we let go of what we were.
Reviewed by Brad Wright