Welcome to the third month of our NYC-inspired book club! In case you missed the first few go-arounds, the idea is to read a new book each month that is either based in or about NYC, and chat about it here on the blog! This month’s pick, Rules of Civility, was a real winner (seriously, dishes went unwashed and work went undone until I turned that final page!), and we have Joanne here to lead the discussion!
Spotting the word “RULES” in a book title immediately pushes my buttons and consequently triggers the rebel in me. So imagine my surprise when at the onset of this immensely interesting and entertaining novel, rules are immediately broken. The opening of the novel starts with the end of the story, and what should most likely be the preface is the addendum. Intriguing, right? So is the rest of this incisive narrative. “Rules of Civility” is that rare high quality piece of fiction, one where I was quickly vested in this telling tale and skillfully drawn characters … couldn’t put it down! I just had to connect the less then circuitous dots in this novel asap! However, as I soon learned, expect the unexpected.
This is 1930s New York City, at the height of our country’s great depression. But there are no desperate apple sellers in this novel, despite the ironic immediate introduction of Walker Evans, the iconic WPA photographer of those dark, harsh times. Quite the deliberate opposite, this is a NYC of sophistication, polish and glam. We are not in that distinctive black and white world of the “have and have nots” – rather we are roaming in that grey matter where people desire, aspire, and reinvent themselves. Think Jay Gatsby sans Daisy as the ultimate goal. It’s like those old bubbly slim “white telephone” movies where the middle class is no where to be found, yet the utilitarian boxey black telephone is actually the one ringing.
Enter the primary characters of Katey Content, Tinker Grey, and Eve Ross – quite a ménage a trois. As their names knowingly signal and inform the reader … lives are about to happen and blank pages are soon to be dramatically filled.
Katey and Eve are two smart, sassy, witty and financially challenged young woman working in one of NYC’s endless office secretarial pools. But do not think this is your usual “carefree young girls find love, happiness, career and marriage” in the Big Apple while barely making the rent. No, not these gals. They are way too savvy and above it all for their lives to be so linear. There is a far more unbalanced equation at work here, thanks to the clever Amor Towles. Their world is one of choice, chance and serendipity … and it is about to rock. It is no mere coincidence that we meet these gals on that most auspicious night of the calendar year, New Year’s Eve, when we all get a chance to start over.
While Katey and Eve eagerly enter the class structured, martini flowing world of Long Island Gold Coast mansions and the sophistication of NYC’s 21 Club – thanks to a chance meeting with Tinker Grey – do not think the entry fee is waived by their wit and good looks. Katey and Eve are way ahead of themselves, and though they appear to mix seamlessly with the landed gentry, there is always the inevitable piper to pay. We meet Wallace Wolcott, Dicky Vanderwhile, Anne Grandyn and the usual “Peaches” and “Bitsys” of this waspy, wealthy world – but don’t let these classy names fool you. Just when it appears safe to jump fully clothed into the swimming pool, the rules of civility are recalled, and hopefully a spark of conscience intervenes. Or at least it should.
Yes, the rich are different but it’s far more complicated and complex then the standard smart alec response “Yeah, they have more money.” Of course there is the inevitable dark side to these lives of privilege. And only an outsider can see this. You can never have enough wealth, smarts and status to protect you from the vicissitudes of life. Stuff happens. Lives are determined in ways we are never prepared for, nor ever quite imagined. Taking the road less traveled by makes all the difference, yet it involves throwing caution to the wind – something you can only do when you are young. Yet how fragile are young lives despite the bravura… you can never quite know where it’s all going, nor are you guaranteed a continuous journey. But characters like Katey and Even would not have it any other way.
Ultimately, the remarkably sharp level of the writing in this fictitious work is so superior that I question, without giving away any of the story, whether the plot is actually worthy of the prose! Such a luxurious question … rarely can you even ask as such when discussing contemporary fiction.
And so if I have done my job correctly, then this commentary should lead you to one heck of a good read. I highly recommend this novel for a book group discussion, and I heard via the grapevine that the author will make himself available should your NYC locale be somewhat near HIS locale. Another rare luxury… take full advantage of this offer if at all possible.
Have you read Rules Of Civility? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!
For next month, we’ll be going all chick-lit on you, reading The Overnight Socialite by Bridie Clark, so download, buy, or check it out from your local library now! You absolutely don’t have to be based out of NYC to participate…in fact, the more variety we have in voices, the better! (That’s me cheering you on, yay!)
We will be hosting this book discussion and posting about it on Monday, April 28th, and would LOVE to have you guys join in on the discussion! Between now and then, please join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag:
Who’s in?! Let us know in the comment section below!
By: Joanne Theodorou