I just finished the best novel I’ve read in ages, my undisputed favorite of the year: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. A beautifully written portrait of Manhattan in the 1930s—jazz, prohibition, and much more from the perspective of Katey Kontent (KonTENT not KONtent), the best narrator since Gatsby’s Nick Carroway and Brideshead’s Charles Ryder. Probably smarter and more observant than either of them—the book is her story while at the same time being her observations of the people and the world around her.
My favorite line is when she’s at a fancy restaurant and has a salad of iceberg lettuce, blue cheese & bacon. She says, “If I were a country, I would have made it my flag.”
And Woolf’ is here too — provocatively. When Katey’s friend Evey is recovering from an injury, she asks Katey to read to her:
–There were eight books stacked on the cocktail table in descending order of size. I picked up the book on top [and] started at the beginning.
–‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsey.’ [She reads a little more.]
–Oh stop, Eve said. It’s dreadful. What is it?”
–Ugh. Tinker brought home all these novels by women as if that’s what I needed to get me back on my feet. Isn’t there anything else?
A second reference, much later, juxtaposes Woolf and Hemingway again. I was fascinated and initiated an email exchange with Amor Towles, asking him why Woolf and why in conjunction with Hemingway twice? Towles replied as follows, with spoiler alerts removed:
“I’m fans of both. I chose them in the scene when Katey reads to Eve because they were both talents of the times but their narrative styles were so different. The implication is that Tinker has placed these books in the living room because they are Contemporary icons (like the Deco furniture); not because Tinker is a serious reader. And [as a result of her accident] Eve has shot definitively away from a Woolfian mindset towards Hemingway’s blunter world view.”
The title of the book comes from the 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation that George Washington compiled as a teenager. Here’s an example: “Make no show of taking great delight in your victuals. Feed not with greediness. Eat your bread with a knife. Lean not on the table, neither find fault with what you eat.”
Read more about Towles’ first novel:
- Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – review | Books | The Observer
- Refined Manhattan Shines With Glamorous ‘Civility‘ : NPR