Monday, January 30, 2012

Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility was one of the books from the past year that I've been most looking forward to reading. The widely praised debut novel by Amor Towles, telling the story of a working class girl who is thrust into the upper class sphere in 1930's Manhattan, was heralded as being written in the style of a modern-day Fitzgerald. I was predisposed to like this novel and, happily, I did.  The Fitzgerald influence is apparent, particularly in some of the more elegiac moments at the beginning and end of the novel, the working girl in the city storyline hearkened back to The Best of Everything, and there's a slight twist at the end that's so subtly well done that it caused me to smile at myself for not catching it earlier. But on top of all of that, the real and surprising standout of the novel is its smart narrator, Katey Kontent.

 As the story begins, Katey is working as a legal secretary and sharing a boardinghouse room with her friend Eve. A chance encounter on New Year's Eve catapults both of them into wealthy New York society life. Katey navigates both sides of the line, mixing more and more with the upper class while maintaining her fifth story walk-up lifestyle. Widely read and well versed in Dickens, Wharton, Thoreau, Chekhov (in the original Russian), and, yes, Agatha Christie, she's one of the most literate characters I've encountered. She judges all facets of New York society with a wry, confident attitude that initially gave me pause. At first I found myself thinking that her voice seemed less like that of a twenty-something girl and more like that of the middle-aged male author who created her. As the details of her background emerged, I became more and more convinced that her attitude was believable, and would be the natural product of her tough, scrappy, Brooklyn upbringing as the first generation daughter of Russian immigrants. On her own from the age of nineteen, she's not the naive, wide-eyed girl I had expected when I started the novel. Instead, she's one of the smartest, most engaging heroines I've read in a long time.

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