I loved this book.  I loved reading it, the story, the cover art, the photo insets, almost everything about it.  It’s probably blasphemous for me to say, but I enjoyed it more than The Great Gatsby.

Set in a post-Depression Manhattan, it follows the trials and triumphs of a small group of friends (and sometimes lovers) in a glittering, Art-Deco New York City. Katey Kontent (yes, the name is a bit self-conscious, but so is Katey) is the narrator of the tale and is far from content.  She works as a secretary in a very respectable firm and finds fun where she can with her friend Eve Ross.   Both of their fates take a turn on New Year’s Eve in a dark jazz club — the night when Tinker Grey comes into their lives.

The overall theme is that life is an adventure unwritten, and not every turning reveals good fortune.  When a shattering accident affects all in their small but close-knit group, it sends each shard of their relationship in multiple directions.

Rules of Civility refers to George Washington’s book of the same name in which he laid out guidelines for keeping polite company. Tinker sometimes references it, though often ironically. This book instead creates its own witticisms and aphorisms. There are too many to recount, but a favorite, early on, is “Learning dance steps was the sorry Saturday night pursuit of every boardinghouse girl in America.”

Publicity postcard for Rules of Civility

And I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment: “No matter how much you think of yourself, no matter how long you’ve lived in Hollywood or Hyde Park, a brown Bentley is going to catch your eye.  There couldn’t be more than a few hundred of them in the world and every aspect is designed with envy in mind.”

Towles sets out a very metered pace and in a structured narrative.  It spans exactly one year, told in flashback.  Interestingly, Towles manages to withhold “how it all ends” despite the fact that he begins at the end.  Effectively, it shows the reader how “naive” we are, just as Katey is.

Walker Evans subway portrait

Also quite effective are the photographs by Walker Evans that mark sections of the book. This series of subway candids reminds us how easy it is to read body language and facial expression, particularly when our guard is down. Washington’s Rules of Civility do not apply here.

As a setting – time and place – it is incredibly well-researched, but comfortably so.  It doesn’t feel forced or sound like it is name-dropping for effect. There is only one portion of one chapter that falls flat.  The rest is as effervescent as a newly popped bottle of champagne.


Many thanks to the folks at Viking/Penguin for the review copy.

Book: Hardcover
5.98 x 9.01in
352 pages
ISBN 9780670022694
26 Jul 2011
Viking Adult
18 – AND UP