Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011) 335 pages
The story is told from Katy's perspective ... she thinks back to her first encounter with Tinker when she and her best friend Eve Ross met Tinker at The Hotspot on New Year's eve. The year is 1938. He is from the "upper crust"; they are a couple of particularly smart, well read and well spoken office girls. They remind me a great deal of Howard Hawks heroines, ala Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.
As the novel proceeds you feel that you might be on the cusp of a madcap Manhattan adventure with the threesome sneaking into cinemas, downing martinis at the 21 Club, viewing the city from the upper reaches of the Trinity Church on Wall Street and both girls vying for his attention ... but the narrative takes a dramatic turn when the three are involved in a horrific car accident in Tinker's car.
Tinker cares for Eve, who suffered the worst injuries including devastating facial scars and a crippled leg, and helps to nurse her back to health in his luxurious Manhattan apartment.
Throughout the novel, Katy keeps referring to her copy of Dickens' Great Expectations. It's a totem of sorts and refers subtly to the ever-changing fortunes of Tinker that so resemble Pip's, the beleaguered hero of that Victorian novel.
Eventually Eve and Tinker become lovers; Katy is oddly nonplussed or, perhaps, she pities Eve and is ready to concede Tinker's affections. She moves on ... rejecting a soul-crushingly boring promotion at her law firm where she types up depositions, quitting her job and then coming to work for an eccentric academic publisher who has taken a liking to her during a chance encounter. Then she is lured away for a position with a Condé Nast executive (natch this is New York) named Mason Tate.
Dicky introduces her to the soon to be trust fund crowd ... a few more years, Katy says, and if they avoid being drowned or thrown in jail, they've got it made: membership in the Racquet Club, opera boxes, lives of leisure. The class dynamic is interesting ... the rich invariably come off as shallow or slithery; Eve and Katy exude intelligence and spunk.
|Towles' elegant prose |
flows and charms ...
Tinker is full of secrets, which Katy soon finds out. Our first instincts are right - something is afoot and it may not be pretty - he's not a villain but our instincts are right, all is not what it seems.
Towles' elegant prose flows and charms, spiked with realistic dialogue between the women and striking descriptions such as this of the subway: "It rattled into the station line like it was coming from another century." or Eve's engagement ring: "... it had a diamond you could skate on."
Tinker's life disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald's theory that there are no second acts for American lives ... you might say that, for modern Americans, the play never ends.