Impossibly glamorous, Rules of Civility takes in 1930s New York with a dry martini and a side order of sharp-tongued wit. With vintage period detail verging on the nostalgic, it’s a stylish tale of ambitious, wisecracking gals on the make in Manhattan.
In Katey Kontent you have a sparklingly smart narrator described as knowing “how to type eighty words a minute, five thousand an hour, and nine million a year and that if you can still lose yourself in the first chapter of a Dickens novel then everything is probably going to be fine.” How right she is, but only just. It’s in a dingy run-down jazz club that on New Year’s Eve 1937, Katey and her best friend, the enigmatic Eve, meet the apparently wealthy and very handsome Theodore ‘Tinker’ Grey, immediately becoming rivals for his affection. It appears Katey’s first in line, but a tragic accident finds Eve the object of his attentions.
With love at its heart (love lost, regained, betrayed and shared), this book is so much more than the sum of its parts as it takes in ambition, manners and the American Dream along the way. Where it excels is in not letting the style become its only substance. Katey, as well as Eve, Tinker, his brother Henry, his friend and contemporary Wallace Wolcott, and of course his ‘godmother’, the rather manipulative Anne Grandyn, all are exceptionally well-drawn and sharply observed characters invoking our sympathies (or not) as the plot twists and turns and their friendships and relationships wax and wane. It’s Katey who’s the star. Cocky, ambitious and smart, she’s instantly likeable with her snappy comebacks and witty one-liners. There’s an argument to be said for more of a focus on the irresistible and enigmatic Tinker Grey, a man who lives his life by the eponymous Rules of Civility—as laid out by George Washington—and I certainly wished for more from the scheming and cryptic Eve.
With inevitable comparisons (and nods) to both The Great Gatsby and Breakfast at Tiffany’s and with its social commentary, delivered through the story of Katey’s own progress from the typing pool to Condé Nast and an apartment in a doorman building, Rules of Civility too has the feel of a classic, one that’s as rich in story as in nostalgia and love for New York. Bookended by an older Katey’s visit to a Walker Evans exhibition and with some of Evans’ photos included at the beginning of each chapter, this is a very enjoyable society novel. With crackling prose, a compelling story and a beautiful way with words, this clever and sassy book is not only full of charm, it’s shockingly good fun.
Sarah Baker blogs at www.whatsarahreads.wordpress.com.