Wednesday, September 11, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

My book group chose Rules of Civility by Amor Towles to discuss at our next meeting. I hadn’t heard of this historical novel, set in New York City in 1938, so I’m glad the book group brought it to my attention. If I had to describe it in one word I would call it poignant.

The bulk of the novel is narrated by Katey Kontent, a twenty-five-year-old working-class woman who is determined to make her way in the big city. Fiercely intelligent and independent, she puts her Russian immigrant past behind her and begins to climb the social and economic ladders. The first steps include a job in a typing pool at a law firm and a gorgeous boardinghouse roommate, Eve, who shares her taste for adventure, booze, and social climbing.

Life gets interesting on New Year’s Eve when Katey and Eve spend the evening in a jazz bar and meet a handsome, wealthy young man named Tinker Grey. The girls compete for Tinker’s attention, although not overtly. Katey is not willing to play that game. It seems as though Eve, the aggressor, has the edge, but at the same time, one gets the sense that Tinker and Katey make a better match. And then a horrible accident, for which Tinker feels responsible, settles things. Eve is injured and Tinker must take care of her. Katey steps aside and moves on with her life.

Katey’s pursuits of career, social advancement, and love make for interesting reading. New York City is a whirlwind and Katey is in the thick of things. Her path crosses that of Tinker and Eve again and again. As the three lives progress, it turns out that nothing is as Katey expected. Her assumptions are repeatedly proved wrong. She has little choice (or inclination) but to forge on with the same determination and lack of sentimentality. When she looks back on that formative year, it is with a bit of wistfulness, but not with outright regret. It’s a fascinating story and it’s poignant.

The book focuses on how the moneyed people lived and partied in 1930's New York. For me, it did jar a little as a Depression Era novel, since there didn’t seem to be any evidence of a depression for the majority of the characters. I was anticipating a little more struggle and a little less excess. But that may have been part of the point--the super-wealthy weren’t touched by the Depression. Even Katey never had employment or money-related difficulties. (Her employment was at issue, but the point was to demonstrate her capabilities and ambitions, not to show that jobs were hard to come by.) Also, she was able to insert herself into high society with no questions asked despite her lack of money or family credentials. I don’t know how realistic this is for the time period, but the book was, nevertheless, an engrossing read.

This is my 25th book for the Historical Fiction Challenge, finishing up my 25 or greater challenge level. I’m sure I’ll continue to add to my list of historical fiction reads in the remaining few months of the year, but it feels good to have one challenge completed! The historical fiction challenge is hosted by Historical Tapestry.

This was a library book, so it is my 16/18 read for the Library Books Challenge hosted by Gina and Book Dragon’s Lair.