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Katey Kontent works hard during the day as a typist at a big law firm in 1930s Manhattan, but at night she likes to sample the nightlife - jazz clubs in Greenwich Village. There on New Year's Eve 1937, she and her roommate Eve meet the charming Tinker Grey. This is the start of a year of many changes for Katey and her friends.
Rules of Civility is a story of a young woman making her way in the big city, with a cast of intriguing and memorable characters.
Katey is a great heroine, independent, tough and clever, the orphan child of Russian immigrant parents (this means there is no one to worry about her respectability and curtail her freedom). She types 80 words a minute, knows the location of every church in Manhattan, and is a serious bookworm. Eve suggests that if Katey piled up every book she ever read, she could reach the moon, and she opts for Dickens as comfort reading. Her job in a staid, traditional Wall Street law firm contrasts with her out of hours adventures.
The attractive Tinker comes between Katey and Eve, but in the course of the following year, Katey will meet many different people. This is a story of the possibilities for self-reinvention in the big city, with lots of scope for reading between the lines of what people say.
Towles' writing is very evocative of places - the rooms that Katey rents, the typing pool where she works at the beginning of the novel, the clubs, the streets of Manhattan, the places that new, wealthier friends will take her to.
Rules of Civility is full of literary references, starting with its title taken from a document by the young George Washington outlining the Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. There is Katey's love of reading, there are conversations about writers, and later on in the book Katey's entry into a literary career. Towles clearly loves the early 20th century American classics and there are many echoes of them here, especially F Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. I don't believe you can namedrop your way to a literary masterpiece, but enthusiastic bookworms will enjoy all these mentions and allusions.
Rules of Civility is a novel of character and atmosphere rather than plot - it is quite slow moving with the characters spending lots of time smoking, drinking and thinking around all the eventful moments. The story is framed by a prologue and epilogue that make it clear Katey is remembering 1938 from a vantage point of some years later. If you enjoy this style of storytelling (as I do), this is recommended.
Published Sceptre Books, hardback and Kindle July 2011, 352 pages
Price: £12.99, currently on sale at Amazon in hardback for £7.25 and Kindle for £5.99
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk