rules of civility

1930s New York – a glamorous city where anyone can make anything of themselves if they have the ambition. Katey Kontent, the daughter of Russian immigrants, is New York born and bred. Her roommate and good friend, Evie Ross, is from a more well to do Midwest family. On New Year’s Eve, 1937, they meet a man named Tinker Grey in a Greenwich Village nightclub, a chance encounter that triggers an event that will leave them all irreversibly changed.

This is a novel which relies heavily on the charm of its narrator, and in Katey Kontent, Towles pulls this off. If I had a time machine and could choose a decade and a place from the last century to visit for a day, 1930s New York would be high on my list. Jazz clubs, gin martinis, fashionable women and young men waiting for their trust funds to pay out. Katey is far more of an observer than a participator, but this makes her more attractive to the reader (or at least to this one). It is the people who Katey meets who direct her year, so much packed in that at times I forgot that only a few months had passed. She finds herself moving in circles far above what she is used to, but never quite lets herself be seduced by the money or the notoriety of others.

If I have a complaint about the novel it is that it meanders rather a lot. The will they/won’t they element is also quashed from the start, a prologue which pairs Katey with a yet unknown husband. At first I thought that the main storyline would be about the relationships between Katey, Evie and Tinker. This is set up nicely in the first few chapters, but Evie and Tinker were then missing for months at a time. A more interesting character was Anne Grandyn, introduced as Tinker’s godmother but turning out to exert far more influence on him than Katey first thinks. Towles writes women who belong quite firmly in their time but still have agency. Anne singles Katey out as a potential protégé early on, as evidenced in a scene at the Belmont racecourse, Anne pointing out the young fiancée of a silver -haired multi millionaire:

-You see that thirty-year-old blonde next to Jake? That’s his fiancée, Carrie Clapboard. Carrie moved all manner of heaven and earth to get into that chair. And soon she will happily oversee scullery maids and table settings and the reupholstering of antique chairs at three different houses; which is all well and good. But if I were your age, I wouldn’t be trying to figure out how to get into Carrie’s shoes – I’d be trying to figure out how to get into Jake’s.

Overall I feel there is slightly more style than substance to this book, but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless.

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