Rules of Civility begins as Kate, a wealthy middle-aged woman, and her husband attend a photo exhibit of famed photographer Walker Evans at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. The pictures are all candids, from the late 1930’s, and taken of unsuspecting people riding the subway. The artist deemed them so personal that he didn’t allow them to be released to the public until thirty years later. While studying the exhibit with her husband, Kate spots a familiar face in a lean and weary Tinker Grey. Kate mentions recognizing and knowing the man in the photo but doesn’t relate any deeper history to her husband, even though the exhibit prompts her to reminisce about meeting him in 1938, and the life that unfolds from choices made in that seminal year.
Rules of Civility is an exquisitely written book. Towles narrative places the reader solidly in the culture of the 1930’s, awash in class stratified New York along with the ins and outs of the social order and the sudden moments of flexibility when its possible achieve upward mobility. Towles’ novel is chiefly comprised of a group of friends complicating their lives through the simplest of decisions, little realizing that they are setting the course of a lifetime. It’s fascinating to see how Kate’s relationship with her roommate and best girlfriend Eve’s relationship grows and changes through their friendship with Tinker.
Kate’s character unfolds organically throughout the novel as the reader gets glimpses of her upbringing by immigrant parents, and the wisdom and life lessons her Russian father meant to convey through his various sayings. I loved getting to know her through her actions and memories. As Kate spends the year navigating the successes and minefields of friendship, love and career, she starts to recognize and develop an opinion on what her father wanted to tell her.
A few days after finishing Rules of Civility, I went through it and just randomly picked passages to read and everyone I came across was a gem. Towles has a gift for capturing the moments that define a lifetime and conveying the marvelous history of New York in this vivacious and decadent time period. Historical fiction fans of this era and area will revel in this charming tale which doubles as a slightly later coming of age story, but this is a story that everyone will love. Highly recommended.
- Read More Reviews At: Bookworm With A View – Literate Housewife – Medieval Bookworm
- Rules of Civility is available in hardcover at Amazon & Powell’s.