Rules of Civility: A Novel

  • Amor Towles
  • Viking
  • 352 pp.

Manhattan nightlife among the smart set, in 1938.

Reviewed by Phil Harvey

It is hard not to be captivated by the narrator of this trip through the year 1938 in Manhattan. Katey Kontent (accent on the second syllable please) does it all. Her boundless talents, while sometimes striking the reader as unlikely, are sparkling and gracious. I wondered how a young woman brought up in Brooklyn by working-class immigrant parents had become an expert in art, contemporary music, New York’s restaurants, syntax and the mellifluous use of the English language, but could not help but admire her for these skills anyway.

Katey and her very close and eccentric friend Eve, set to spend New Year’s Eve of 1937-38 without champagne in a downtown nightclub, unexpectedly encounter a very classy young man in an expensive beaver coat. He not only produces the requisite champagne but captivates both women. Eve eventually catches this seemingly wealthy aristocrat, but that does not end Katey’s relationship with him as a friend and someone who fascinates her then and years later.

The book is aptly named. The preface, which takes place in the Museum of Modern Art in 1966, is especially lovely; the civility here seems appropriate, with subtle undertones. Later, back in 1938, we wander into penthouses and parties in the company of seemingly endless numbers of wealthy, educated people with waspy nicknames ― Dickey, Bitsy, Tinker, Wyss ― as they pursue what appear to be relatively empty but nonetheless very pleasant lives. The book is saved from what could be clichéd performances by these smooth young people through Katey’s witty assessments of their long and short suits, both emotional and sartorial.

The novel has flaws. For a woman in her mid-20s living in New York, first in a boarding house and then in her own apartment, Katey is remarkably asexual. It is always a challenge for a male author to create a viable female character whose first- person consciousness narrates an entire novel, and Towles does this quite well. But Katey’s femaleness is undermined by the fact that she never thinks about sex, never has to resist it and never encounters it. She spends the night in the same apartment with gentlemen friends on several occasions and they don’t make even the most tentative pass at her; it is as though sexuality is simply not part, either in thought or in deed, of this otherwise appealing young woman’s experience. The fact that Katey and her friends consume a great deal of alcohol makes this all the odder. As if to make up for this lapse, Towles rather hurriedly introduces a couple of sex scenes toward the end of the book, pointedly initiated by Katey, not by her gentlemen lovers.

There are unfinished episodes. Friend Eve is found by the police, passed out drunk in an alley.  Katey is summoned. But we never find out what happened.

Sometimes, too, her repartee is so clever we tend to cringe a bit (or simply fail to get the point), though she manages to bring off “hoi polloi” as a verb, which is no mean feat. Her command of the English language is so thorough, her familiarity with all things connected with contemporary life so smoothly unassuming, that we can’t escape a small frisson of satisfaction when she refers to the flying target on a skeet field as a “skeet” instead of a clay pigeon.

The use of long dashes in place of quote marks is annoying, but bearable.

Katey usually keeps her distance; the characters are more observed than deeply felt. But the tale is engrossing, and Katey herself is interesting and often compelling. Her relationships with the man who takes her skeet shooting, with the man who married and cared for her best friend following an automobile accident, and with the woman who turns out to be the bankrolling paramour of the always interesting Tinker ― the man in the beaver coat ― are engaging. The novel does one important thing that novels are supposed to do: It takes you to a new world and lets you live for a while in the company of an unusual and fascinating person. If you like your heroines civilized and impeccably knowledgeable, you could do far worse than Katey Kontent.

Phil Harveys short stories have appeared in 13 publications.

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