New York City in the late 1930s was a cornucopia of people hoping to find themselves, all while trying to make a buck. Gone was the excess of the Jazz Age; in its place was a much stricter world order: “it was as if America launched the Depression just to teach Manhattan a lesson.”
"It’s like The Great Gatsby: The Next Generation. RULES OF CIVILITY, like the code of conduct written by a young George Washington from which the novel takes its name, is a carefully observed and beautifully written portrait of a distinct moment in time."
Into this world springs young Katey Kontent, an ambitious young woman trying to rise above her humble beginnings in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. On New Year’s Eve 1937, Katey and her roommate, Eve Ross, are having a night out on the town, seeing how far $3 and a smile will take them. In a little jazz venue in the Village aptly named The Hot Spot, the pair meet Tinker Grey, a handsome, suave and obviously well-bred young banker who has been stood up by his brother. He seemed comfortable with his wealth while trying to obscure it at the same time. Perhaps this night out in the Village was his venturing beyond his rigid ken.
The threesome hit it off and decide to ring in the new year together. It’s very clear from the start that both girls are taken with the dashing Tinker, but hard to decipher where his interest lies. Almost immediately and for the first time, there’s tension and a twinge of competition between Eve and Katey. Eve, an Indiana farm girl, is a breed well known in New York: “Bred with just the right amount of fresh air, roughhousing, and ignorance, these primitive blondes set out from the cornfields looking like starlight with limbs.” Katey, with her humble job in the typing pool and her Russian upbringing, couldn’t compete with that, no matter how strong her attraction to Tinker.
Tinker, Eve and Katey continue to spend time together, even venturing as far uptown as the famed restaurant, 21, in Tinker’s sporty little coupe, only to run into reminders of his posh life everywhere. While dining, they run into his godmother, wealthy widow Anne Grandyn, who exhibits quite a hold over young Tinker. Who he was and who they were was all over this city --- there was no escaping it. After leaving the restaurant, their car is hit by a milk truck. Tinker and Katey receive only minor injuries, but Eve is not so fortunate and sustains a severely broken leg and a disfiguring gash across her face. She’s never really the same again. Katey observes that both Eve and Tinker “lost something essential of themselves in that car crash.”
Because of the accident, and to keep Eve from having to return to her parents in Indiana, Tinker moves her in to his Central Park West apartment to convalesce. As the pair grow closer, Katey feels nudged out of their little circle; although hurt, she realizes she must step aside and try to find her own way in a big, nameless city. As the newsman at the local stand points out to Katey, “That’s the problem with being born in New York…. You’ve got no New York to run away to.”
Amor Towles’s artfully crafted novel illustrates a New York for both the “haves” and “have-nots.” It’s like The Great Gatsby: The Next Generation. RULES OF CIVILITY, like the code of conduct written by a young George Washington from which the novel takes its name, is a carefully observed and beautifully written portrait of a distinct moment in time. These characters are hurdling toward their own destiny, much like, as Katey observes, one of Newton’s laws of physics, wherein “bodies in motion will hew to their trajectory unless they meet an external force…. It was perfectly likely that some force could present itself to set Tinker and Eve off their current course; but there was no way it was going to be me.”
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on May 9, 2013