Strengths: Love the opening, the atmosphere created in the book is fantastic.
Weaknesses: Occasionally lost track of who some people were, otherwise none.
Why I read it: On my wish list and bought on my recent holiday to Singapore
Publisher: Penguin US
Setting: New York City
Rating: 9 out of 10
If you liked this, try: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’ve struggled for several days to write this opening paragraph. Why? It’s because Rules of Civility is a fantastic book and I want to do it justice in my review. Picked up on my recent holiday to Singapore, I feel bad for passing this by in the bookstore at home. It’s a book that completely engulfs you – you are immersed in the setting with the characters.
The book starts at the end – Katey and her husband are attending the opening of a show of clandestine pictures taken in the subway in the 1930s. (Note that this really did happen, and there are pictures throughout the book from the exhibition by Walker Evans – worth a look). There she sees an old friend not once, but twice – Tinker Grey. In one picture, he looks dapper and well-fed. In the other, malnourished and grimy. So what caused this change?
We then move back in time to 1938 New York City, which tells the story of how Katey met Tinker Grey and how their lives became entwined. Katey moves from one social circle to another – from grimy jazz bars to sprawling mansions. Tinker fades in and out and Katey gradually begins to realise that all is not what it seems. She struggles with the sense of right and wrong – who is she to judge? But shouldn’t we be honest to those we love and ourselves?
I read this book in two days. The book brings New York to life – the reader can clearly see the buildings, hear the noise and smell the city. Towles’ ability to do this is masterful – exceptional for a first novel! The characters are also well drawn, especially Katey. We can almost feel her brain ticking over as she tries to figure out who is – and isn’t – telling the truth. Some of the minor characters – particularly the social climbers merge into one though. While being a historical novel, the narrative also has a contemporary feel to it. I don’t mean that the setting is taken out of context, but that the book speaks to you like you are living side by side with Katy. It also captures the air of desolation around the Great Depression.
You might be wondering where the title comes from. It’s from a list that George Washington (yes, that one) made as a youngster. Tinker believes it to be his rules for living successfully in society.
It’s interesting to note that the book cover above – the American edition – has the same cover picture as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in Australia! Although the picture would do both books justice (but I can’t imagine Katey lounging around like that – Eve, perhaps).
See? It’s interesting that two books that are quite alike in my head should even look similar.
I loved this book and can’t wait to see what Amor Towles comes up with next. I love that the subway pictures were used as a contrast to the themes of the book – while waiting for our train ride to end, we show our truthful selves. But in the street, we look and act how others want to see us.