The "Rules of Civility" is a delightful tale that parachutes the reader straight out of the Manhattan skyline into the lives of three friends poised to resurrect leftover dreams placed on hold during the era of the Great Depression. Author Amor Towles begins the story starring two best friends and one wealthy, eligible bachelor by igniting the promise of a hopeful future on the eve of New's Years 1938. While secretaries Katey Kontent and Eve Ross compete for the attentions of of the enigmatic Tinker Grey in the first months of 1938, fate intervenes to give Eve a grand opportunity to experience the oppulence and privilege of a new social standing. Meanwhile, Katey continues to represent the challenges of the twenty-something, unmarried working girl trying to make it in the Big Apple.
In Eve's land of opportunity, cigarettes are lit with silver plated lighters, olive studded martinis are refreshed breakfast through dinner, women in pearls enter limosines with doors held open by white gloved drivers, and elevator operators escort the social climbers up into Manhattan's skyscrapers.
In Katey's land of no opportunity, members of the hard working class chain smoke cigarettes in back alley jazz clubs, watered down drinks are ordered with greasy burgers, women in worn high heels run to hail taxi cabs, and at the end of the day, they drag their tired bodies home to tiny apartments.
Towles effectively captures the culture of the time period with references to Central Park, Madison Avenue, smoky jazz clubs, and the national past-times such as betting on horse racing, reading Manhattan society magazines, or collecting modern art. And as morning moves into night, he paints the picturesque image of a power grid illuminating a Manhattan sky at dusk.
The title of Towles' tale is no accident. A young George Washington, future first President of the United States, wrote "Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation." The morsels of advice become a textbook of sorts for Tinker Grey; especially as he applies Washington's rules to complex relationships he enjoys with the women in his life. While he confidently wears expensive suits and dines in French restaurants, the future waits patiently to reveal the consequences of his choices. The reader soon realizes that, ultimately, Tinker Grey has been keeping the secret of his own success.
Little fault can be found with the story, but the author does interject various characters who make a brief appearance before inexplicably disappearing from the storyline. Though he uses these brief encounters to more clearly illlustrate the multi-faceted aspects of American culture in the late 1930's, it seems a shame that these cameo characters are eliminated before we get to know them more intimately.
In spite of its few shortcomings, "Rules of Civility" treats the reader to a wonderful palette of characters set against a canvas of well spoken words. Towles effectively provides a vivid portrayal of a late 1930s New York. The pages come alive with the voices of the haves and the have nots along and destinies decided by opportunities taken and opportunities lost. One can only think that within the setting of such a tumultuous decade in American history, the title could have more aptly been called breaking the rules of civility.