I finally picked up Rules of Civility, which has been sitting in my bookcase since last year after I read (and loved!!!) the author’s newer work A Gentleman in Moscow. This older book was published in 2011 as the debut work of Amor Towles.
I found this book to be a really good read and a really smart read. As the strong woman character (Kate Kontent) – climbs the social and professional ladders, we get a thorough picture of New York (Manhattan) in the 1940s which is fascinating. This is post-depression but pre-war so although people are happy and doing well (especially the upper echelons Kate works to put herself among) I couldn’t help but think about what was to come.
Also I took notice of the many literary references in this book.
“Powdered with snow, Washington Square looked as lovely as it could. The snow had dusted every tree and gate. The once tony brownstones that on summer days now lowered their gaze in misery were lost for the moment in sentimental memories. At No. 25, a curtain on the second floor was drawn back and the ghost of Edith Wharton looked out with shy envy. Sweet, insightful, unsexed, she watched the three of us pass wondering when the love that she had so artfully imagined would work up the courage to rap on her door. When would it present itself at an inconvenient hour, insist upon being admitted, brush past the butler and rush up the Puritan staircase urgently calling her name? Never, I’m afraid.”
Towles goes on to make many more references in his book, most prominently Henry Thoreau’s Walden as well as the title which is taken from The Young George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, which literally figures into the plot (yes this physical book is actually in the plot.). Towles mentions and quotes from Agatha Christie and Hemingway, and many others. LOTS of Intertexuality in this book which I love. (What is intetexuality? – read more here.)
Also as a scholar of pub scenes, I also appreciated the many bars, taverns, restaurants- both shady and exclusive – that Kate visits. This girl is all over the place, and I loved the descriptions of these places. One of my favorites, Chernoff’s, “a fusion of glitter and sob stories”:
“Chernoff’s was a former speakeasy run by a Ukrainian Jew who emigrated shortly before the Romanovs were shot in the snow. It was located under the kitchen of a kosher restaurant, and though it was popular with Russian gangsters it was also a gathering place for Russia’s competing political emigres…The waiters at Chernoff’s never asked for your order. They just plopped down plates of pierogies and herring and tongue…The food at Chernoff’s was cold, the vodka medicinal and the service abrupt. But nobody came to Chernoff’s for the food or the vodka or the service. They came for the show. ” (then Towles goes on to describe the show too long to type here)
Descriptions of places and food/drink are some of the same things I appreciated in A Gentleman in Moscow, though the Count’s world was a much smaller one.
I think most readers would enjoy this book; the plot details (books, bars) I picked out above were just the things I tend to notice, but are not necessarily the primary focus of the book, which is class/social/professional climbing, but most of all New York.
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