When Katey Kontent and her roommate Eve, with three dollars between them, decide to spend New Year’s Eve in a Greenwich Village low-rent jazz bar to ring in 1938 and smoke and drink too much away from polite society, the two good-looking girls aren’t expecting to meet any dashing young men, until Tinker Grey walks in, wearing a sumptuously tailored cashmere coat and an irresistible smile. After they’ve all shared a drink and a bit of chat, the girls don’t think they’ll ever hear from Tinker again, being as he is an incredibly handsome banker—he might as well be Jay Gatsby—living at a luxury building on Central Park West, something he lets slip in conversation. But they do, and the three soon engage in harmless flirting, which quickly turns to envy, until a serious accident changes the dynamic in the threesome and suddenly Evelyn seems poised to take advantage of the cards she’s been dealt with, while Katey, as her surname predestines her, contentedly looks on and refuses to judge her best friend as others are wont to do. But we know from the first pages of the book that Tinker somehow ended up losing everything just a couple of years after this encounter, so it follows that we’ll find out just how he fell from grace. Could it be because he decided to put aside the rules mentioned in the title, which refers to a heavily underlined book Katie finds in Tinker’s library: George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation?
Admittedly, this was an entertaining novel. I happen to like reading about the period between the world wars, and I knew for certain I’d enjoy Rules of Civility after reading Liesl Schillinger’s take on it in The New York Times Book Review:
With this snappy period piece, Towles resurrects the cinematic black-and-white Manhattan of the golden age of screwball comedy, gal-pal camaraderie and romantic mischief. With Katey, we travel by cab and watch Broadway “slipping by the windows like a string of lights being pulled off a Christmas tree,” or see limousines idling in front of the 21 Club, smoke spiraling from their tailpipes “like genies from a bottle.” These pages prompt recollections of movie scenes stamped so deeply on the psyche that they feel remembered: elevated trains, Carole Lombard and Jimmy Stewart, smoky jazz clubs and men in fedoras.
All the same, I came away quite annoyed with this novel, and this for a few reasons, though the first might seem rather curmudgeonly on my part: it just seemed too obvious that it had been written to appeal to a mass audience, but then, at no point does the book try to be anything else than a best-selling page turner, so I can hardly fault it for not having had more depth or for being so blatantly commercial. Secondly, the names of countless famous novels are casually mentioned throughout, many of which are bestsellers in the day, and while this might have delighted me as book lover, in this context, I found instead it all too blatantly made an appeal to the reader’s vanity (“ah yes, I’ve read/recognize that one!”) Lastly, and this problem in retrospect may also be tied with my first issue, was that the whole turning point of the story, which marks our heroine’s sudden realization that things are not—gasp!—as they appeared to be, was based on a plot twist that was all too predictable. I guess I found the novel to be so clever in many ways, that I expected it to be insightful and surprising as well. But I have only myself to blame for having unrealistic expectations, because who ever said screwball romantic comedies and light summer reading were ever meant to be intellectually challenging experiences to begin with? Taken for what it has to offer, this is a good, if not all that memorable novel.
I read and originally posted a version of this review on LibraryThing last summer, but as this title was released this late June in paperback format, I thought it might be timely to post my updated review here as well.