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Book Review: RULES OF CIVILITY
(Amor Towles)

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Debut novelist Amor Towles has written a captivating love letter to  Manhattan of the late 1930s.

The story starts in a jazz club on the last night of 1937, centering on Katey and Eve, boardinghouse roommates, and follows through the next year of events and decisions that will shape the rest of their lives.

That New Year's, we started the evening with a plan of stretching three dollars as far as it would go. We weren't going to bother ourselves with boys. More than a few had had their chance with us in 1937, and we had no intention of squandering the last hours of the year on latecomers. We were going to perch in this low-rent bar where the music was taken seriously enough that two good-looking girls wouldn't be bothered and where the gin was cheap enough that we could each have one martini an hour. We intended to smoke a little more than polite society allowed. And once midnight had passed without ceremony, we were going to a Ukrainian diner on Second Avenue where the late night special was coffee, eggs, and toast for fifteen cents.

But a little after nine-thirty, we drank eleven o'clock's gin. And at ten, we drank the eggs and toast. We had four nickels between us and we hadn't had a bite to eat. It was time to start improvising.

Eve was busy making eyes at the bass player. It was a hobby of hers. She liked to bat her lashes at the musicians while they performed and ask them for cigarettes in between sets. This bass player was certainly attractive in an unusual way, as most Creoles are, but he was so enraptured by his own music that he was making eyes at the tin ceiling. It was going to take an act of God for Eve to get his attention. I tried to get her to make eyes at the bartender, but she wasn't in a mood to reason. She just lit a cigarette and threw the match over her shoulder for good luck. Pretty soon, I thought to myself, we were going to have to find ourselves a Good Samaritan or we'd be staring at the tin ceiling too.

And that's when he came into the club.

Eve saw him first. She was looking back from the stage to make some remark and she spied him over my shoulder. She gave me a kick in the shin and nodded in his direction. I shifted my chair.

He was terrific looking. An upright five foot ten, dressed in black tie with a coat draped over his arm, he had brown hair and royal blue eyes and a small star-shaped blush at the center of each cheek. You could just picture his forebear at the helm of the Mayflower—with a gaze trained brightly on the horizon and hair a little curly from the salt sea air.

—Dibs, said Eve.

And we're off and running.  These young women are sharply funny and intelligent, just the sort of people we like for friends.  The story is entertaining, compelling and well written. About the time you think you can predict the next event, it surprises you. 

Towles' voice reminded me of Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY or Marquand's POINT OF NO RETURN, both of which speak softly and in detail, taking elaborate care to show the subtle effect of class wars and how seemingly small personal choices and decisions can affect the rest of our lives in unimaginable ways. 

The title is taken from George Washington's RULES OF CIVILITY AND DECENT BEHAVIOR IN COMPANY AND CONVERSATION, an 1888 handbook for improving one's manners in polite company, which figures prominently with one of the characters. While quaintly stated, most of the rules still apply.

I have only two quibbles with Towles' RULES: His characters are constantly happening to bump into someone they know, too many coincidences even, I think, for a space as small as Manhattan. Also, the advance copy had a few egregious punctuation and spelling errors that I hope were caught before final publication.

But no matter. I suspect neither of those points will slow down the trajectory of this book. It's sure to be a rocketfire financial success.

RULES OF CIVILITY, Amor Towles, Viking, available July 26, 2011.

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