There are only a handful of books we consider to be perfect, and they only come about when we are most in need of them. One of them is the astonishing Rules of Civility, a novel about New York City in 1938 that becomes more impressive with each successive rereading. Since May, we’ve read it cover to cover three times.
The basic plot is misleading: Best friend and roommate Katey Kontent and Evey Ross meet the wealthy, handsome Tinker Grey on New Year’s Eve 1937. They show him the world of lower-middle-class Manhattan, but before he can fully reciprocate, the trio are in a car wreck that leaves Evey scarred, Tinker shaken, and Katey out in the cold. The trio becomes a duo, and Katey puts aside her own feelings for Tinker and embarks on a yearlong odyssey that is both precise and universal.
The trick to Amor Towles’ writing is that nothing is as it seems. Katey is remembering the year from the comfortable upper class milieu she calls home in the 1960s, but that doesn’t mean she corrects her first impressions. One of the joys of rereading Rules of Civility is spotting the toaster in its trees; what was hidden in plain sight.
The other joy, of course, is the wry, sardonic Katey, whose observations about New York City, literature (her soliloquy on the joys of Agatha Christie is both spot-on and deeply melancholy), and her friends. What Towles does with his plot is unlike anything else we’ve read; what one would assume would end up in some semblance of a neatly tied bow, even one with a fashionably downbeat ending is nothing what Rules of Civility delivers. Some people come into your life and seem to be permanent, as Katey discovers, but they’re really just there to move you on your way and provide a glamorous distraction or two.
And that, it seems to us, more than jazz or speakeasies or the beats or the Masters of the Universe, is as close to a definition of New York City as we’ve ever found.