Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rules of Civility in 1930's New York

I read about the author Amor Towles before I read The Rules of Civility.   We share a love for Edward Hopper's paintings.  His grandmother put off marriage until she was 30 because she was having so much fun.  This was obviously a thought in his head when he wrote the book.  He had a very regimented approach to writing.  The author is quoted on his website:

I decided it would be a distinctive first person narrative; all events and characters would be carefully imagined in advance; and it would be written in one year. After a few weeks of preparation, I started Rules of Civility on January 1, 2006 and wrapped it up 365 days later. The book was designed with 26 chapters, because there are 52 weeks in the year and I allotted myself two weeks to draft, revise and bank each chapter.

With this in mind, my expectations were high for the book.   We read it for book club and it was well received.   The characters are an interesting bunch, but I thought lacking initial substance, which may have been a result of that era.  I wasn't endeared to them as much as I wanted to be. The ones I thought would be the most true to their roots weren't and the ones I thought were crazy, might be, but they came to terms with where they wanted to be and left all their preconceived thoughts on how to find happiness behind.  The book is still a nice read despite my misgivings on character introductions. 

The book takes places in 1938.  It's just after the Depression and there are hints, but no one is anticipating World War ll.  (It's almost impossible to discard the Gatsby effect even though this book takes place a decade later.)  Katey, the main character seems to wiggle her way into the social scene. It starts by a chance encounter with Tinker on New Year's Eve. From there, she hooks up with other socially tied-in rich kids such as Dicky Vanderwhile and  Wallace Wolcott. 

A lot of reviews point to Katey as being an outsider, but I felt she was only an outsider in that she wasn't brought up in a wealthy environment.  She came from Brooklyn.  Her father, who she loved, was Russian.  Katey seemed to work her way into any situation. She knew how to play the game whether she was dealing with her high level boss (she gets a job at a new magazine at Conde Nast) or Tinker's "godmother." I had the sense that she was taking life in and using it to her advantage. 

The great thing about this novel is that there is a real storyline. I know that may sound ridiculous, but most of the current fiction I've read lately had the feel of scenes written on napkins and then cobbled into a book.  I love that it took place in New York.  I think I've ODed on  Middle Eastern/Indian/Pakistani authors for the time being.

The title owes to George Washington’s “Rules of Civility”.   He was sixteen when he wrote it.  The rules basically taught respect for others, which would make the follower of these rules a better person.  The rules were based on teachings from French Jesuits.   By the end of that eye opening year, the characters each find their own place of civility.

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