Do you ever read a book and see the movie playing in your head when you read along? For me, Amor Towles' debut novel Rules of Civility is the perfect example of this. But instead of a big, brash Hollywood production, it unfurled for me as if it was an old time glamorous black and white movie, and not simply because of the time period in which it is set. It has that old Hollywood sensibility to it, a class and a feel that you can't find anymore, but captured here remarkably true and authentic. Cinematic, jazzy, and well-written, this was a fantastic book club read.
Opening in the mid '60s at a photography exhibit, Katey Content sees an old friend pictured twice in the photos taken with a hidden camera on New York subways almost 30 years prior. The first picture of Tinker Grey shows him as confident, successful, and debonair. The second picture shows him dirty and poor but strangely alive. Seeing these pictures takes Katey back to that fateful time, 1938-39, the year she and her roommate Eve met Tinker Grey and everything changed, a time frozen forever in her memory and never shared with her husband not because it is salacious but because it is too intensely personal.
Katey is an ambitious working girl from an immigrant background and Eve is a pretty, wealthy girl from Iowa, neither one the sort of young woman that New York elevates, celebrates and acknowledges but each searching for her own niche in the City. They meet Tinker Grey, who has the world of private school, exclusive summers, and wealth in his voice on New Year's Eve at a subterranean jazz bar. The three of them quickly become inseparable, traveling through the city, partying and having adventures as only the young, single, and apparently golden can until a near tragedy cleaves their trio, changing the dynamic between them and ultimately exposing things better left concealed.
This is a novel of privilege and class distinction, secrets and shifting truths, the false camouflage of appearances, and an empty but glittering desolation. There are many twists and permutations to the story, all of which suit the characters as they are drawn here, langorous and youthfully weary. The novel is alive with its literary precursors in all the allusions evident in the text and indeed in the echoing plot itself. A sensuous and captivating read, this feels very much like an homage to Gatsby and his own brand of glittering superficiality. Readers who appreciate well-done period pieces, and specifically the luscious lure of the moneyed class just before the second World War, will find this a completely enticing and marvelous read.