It’s tough to review Rules of Civility without gushing about The Great Gatsby, as they are awfully similar in tone, setting and even (big compliment to Amor Towles, here) in terms of writing. Rules of Civility takes all that makes Fitzgeralds masterpiece sing and moulds it into not only his own story but one that resonates just as clearly. And this is Towles’ debut novel. Astounding.
The novel whispers with romantic tones that set the scene of a young woman, Katey Kontent and her life over the period of a year. Told retrospectively, her story comes through as an emotional tale of a life lived to the fullest regardless of social standing. Much of the plot revolves around the premise of rich versus poor and Katey’s friend Evelyn trying to shove her way into the elite.
When the two friends are out on the town one night they meet a young man called Tinker Grey who has the world at his feet and seemingly enough money to buy it. From here the girls spend every minute with Tinker as they sponge on his wallet. This inevitably leads to Evelyn claiming him as her own and the two jet off around the World, leaving Katey behind to form new groups of friends and work hard for her money.
This introduces those polar opposites of financial stability. While Eve disappears with Tinker and brags about her life of diamonds, emeralds and exotic locales, Katey quits her secretarial job to pursue her love for books and writing and joins a publisher. It’s an inspiring and uplifting story about chasing your goals, following your dreams and living each day to the fullest.
While the story is lovely and feels good, much sadness befalls Katey and her friends and the book has several moments (not to be spoiled) that will leave your heart swelling for Katey Kontent. But perhaps the largest gem here is Towles’ writing itself and his descriptions of 1930’s New York.
You know an author is getting everything right when you close the book and glance at your surroundings wishing you were in that smoky jazz joint or sitting in the diner uptown that sits in the shadow of a nearby churches spire. New York is almost as big a character as Katey or Tinker, in fact. As I write this I feel as if my paltry words can do nothing to describe the beauty with which Amor Towles wields the English language.
Rules of Civility holds one other similarity with The Great Gatsby that is rather intriguing and that is the inability to initially work out who the “hero” is. In Gatsby we don’t really know whether the object of our affections should be the narrator, Nick or Gatsby himself. This can be seen in Civility, too, as we see Tinker taking the attention on many occasions from Katey. It’s only in the dénouement that we truly see behind the scenes with a twist in the plot and grasp the characters truly.
It has been quite some time since I’ve read such a beautifully penned novel and to think that this is a debut is frankly shocking. I for one can’t wait to see what Amor Towles gives us next. Rules of Civility is a book for those longing for something Gatsby-esque and for fans of truly remarkable writing.
Rules of Civility is available today from Sceptre