Rules of Civility
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… jazz and booze and free love…
A depression era novel that is chaotic and joyful.
Katya “Katey” Kontent (that’s Kon-TENT as in content as a purring cat) comes from a Russian family and seems to be the only one of her family to have made it to the Great Depression intact. She has a partner in crime, one Evelyn “Eve” Ross, who is blonde perfection from the Midwest running away from her wealthy family and their expectations (marriage, kids, farm) and determined to make it on her own.
When Katey and Eve descend on a low rent club New Year’s Eve 1937, they cross paths with Theodore “Tinker” Grey, ostensibly looking for his brother Hank, and begin a threesome that will change all their lives.
It would seem to be a strange choice to base a novel on George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility, but this is a strange novel, a comedy of errors with little comedy and quite a few errors. Amor Towles takes his characters through the tail end of the Great Depression when booze flowed freely, everyone smoked, and no one really knew where they were headed . . . at first. Take two poor young women (one by choice and the other by birth) determined to have a good time during one of the most chaotic and free wheeling times of the early twentieth century and add one rich and handsome young man from old money and a secret in his past, that is not so secret, and errors will follow.
Gate crashing at wealthy homes where the booze is free, jazz clubs in the wee hours, car crashes, blighted romantic triangles, sex and the single wealthy woman with unusual tastes, and love doing someone wrong and those are just the high points of Rules of Civility. A handy guide at the end of the book lists the rules that Washington tried to live his life by, and a handy guide it is for Tinker and for Katey, both of whom seem not to be able to get out of their own way.
Towles infuses Rules of Civility with the brash and carefree attitude that the twenty-something on their madcap way to something different from what their parents intended for them much like the movies during that pre-war era when Prohibition was out and the frantic life was in. Katey and Eve are one half of the famous foursome of Sex and the City and they did it first. It is as if Towles intended to show New York City as it is and has always been with youth at the helm.
Men come and go, but Tinker remains, at least on the sidelines and in Katey’s heart, like a thread of melody in a symphony reminiscent of its humbler origins.
“Some people are born with the ability to appreciate the serene and formally structured music like Bach and Handel. They can sense the abstract beauty of the music’s mathematical relationships, its symmetries and motifs. But Dicky wasn’t one of them.”
It is through Dicky and his affinity for the seeming chaos of jazz and his inability, despite his money and opportunities, to toe the upper crust line, that Katey faces the reality of what she wanted from the beginning and threw aside.
Rules of Civility isn’t Handel or Bach. It is jazz and booze and free love and the desire to be something better, something more, something new, in a New York City that changes its face but never its heart. This is the Great Depression of jazz babies cruising through the morass of youth to the next summit.
Reviewer: J.M. Cornwell