Rules of Civility by Amor Towles blew me away, but not in the way I was expecting. To me the cover and description of this book suggests a playful romp through upper class New York: heavy on descriptions of champagne fueled shenanigans and light on plot. But what I discovered was a book with substance, characters that are flawed but full of hope, and a whirlwind ride through ever changing scenery, from a run down jazz club to a Plaza penthouse.
The book focuses on Katey Kontent, a witty young woman living in New York city. Her adventure begins on the last night of 1937, when she and her friend Eve meet a charming banker who goes by the name Tinker. What follows is a flurry of other chance encounters and a chain of events that is genuinely surprising without being over the top.
The first thing I loved about this book was its main main character, Katey. She is smart with a generous dose of snark, and you feel you are being led through the story by someone who knows all the best spots in town. The other characters (and there are a lot of them) are each drawn in their present state. Each time Katey meets someone new, you feel you are meeting them for the first time also. As the novel progresses, however, the characters gain "weight"and you are able to see them for who they are, and who they will become.
My second favorite thing about this book was the masterful way Towles wraps the reader up in the time period. There was not a second that I didn't feel like I was in 1938, and the details added richness and color to the story. And yet, even with all of the details: the descriptions of clothes, martinis, and even the paintings on the walls, I didn't feel like I was being overwhelmed, or like the author was adding detail for the sake of detail. Everything had purpose and added to the story. One of the things that most surprised me was all the references to books and reading. There are stacks of book in Katey's apartment, from Walden (her favorite) to a collection of Hemingways. At one point she picks up Great Expectations, and at another she goes on an Agatha Christie binge. All of the titles are significant, and I love the way Towles weaves them effortlessly into the fabric of the story.
In the end, Rules of Civility is about how much can happen in 12 months. It is about the people that fate brings into our lives and the hope that each new year brings.
It seems fitting that I would choose to review this book at the start of a new year. I suggest you make it the first book you read in 2013.
In closing, I'll share one of my favorite quotes, in which Katey is admiring the view from her window:
"The little planes no longer circled the Empire State Building, but it was still a view that practically conjugated hope: I have hoped, I am hoping, I will hope." -pg. 323