May 24, 2015

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

This debut novel was hugely successful a few years ago, and having finally gotten a chance to read it, I can see why. Taking place in 1938 New York City, "Rules of Civility" is the first person narrative of a tumultuous year in the life of Katherine Kontent, a New York native. Smart as a whip and employed as a secretary, Kate lives in a boardinghouse with her mid-Western escapee best friend Eve. On New Years' Eve, they chance to meet an incredibly charming Tinker Grey, a banker and (supposed) Ivy Leaguer. Their beautiful trifecta is thrown into disarray in a split second car crash: Eve's face is disfigured and she loses much of her left leg's mobility; Tinker, horrified to have caused her injuries, brings Eve to live with him and pays her way through recovery. Kate is left to watch from the outside as Eve entrenches herself in the upper crust, even as Tinker's facade begins to crumble away.

The writing is astoundingly good, particularly for a first novel. I have mixed feelings about the trend that leaves out quotation marks (here, speaking is denoted by a long "-"), but it quickly becomes unnoticeable. Kate's voice is smart and witty without being overly precious (just like her), and it's a joy to be sucked so deeply into the world of 1938 NYC. My only real complaint is the typeface, which is quite thin and strains the eyes a bit while reading at night. It's a really beautiful novel, well deserving of its bestseller status.

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