Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Amor Towles, _Rules of Civility_

OUR BOOK CLUB read this one this month; I think I'm the only member who did not much like it.

In the early going, a sort of Jules-and-Jim story emerges: New Year's Eve, 1937, New York City, single girls and best-friends-forever Eve and Katey meet Tinker, to all appearances a wealthy blue blood Manhattanite. They both seem a bit taken with him, he with them. A car accident, with Tinker at the wheel, in which Eve is badly hurt, gives her a kind of pity-advantage...but does he really care more for narrator Katey?

This story dissipates, though, as we we focus for several chapters on Katey's simultaneous climbing of the social and career ladders.  Then, Eve somewhat precipitously declines a marriage proposal from Tinker and decamps for Hollywood. Tinker and Katey strike up an affair, but she then learns he is not what he pretends to be. It's a blow, but she pulls herself up by her spaghetti straps and resumes her conquest of New York.

The reviewers quoted in the paperback edition mention Wharton and Fitzgerald--an inevitable association when one is writing about wealthy people in New York before World War II, I suppose--but even though Tinker's eventually-exploded cover puts one in mind of Gatsby, Towles struck me as more akin to John O'Hara or Louis Auchincloss.  Skillful, okay, but great? Not so much.

What did remind me of Wharton was Katey's anti-Semitism. This goes by pretty quickly. Katey rebuffs the friendly overtures of Charlotte, also in the secretarial pool where Katey works--why? Does Charlotte's Yiddish-speaking grandmother, whom Katey bumps into on the street, have something to do with Katey's coolness towards the effusive Charlotte?

I wonder.  Having noticed this episode in chapter 6, I also noticed that this is one of the very few novels about the 1930s I have read that never mentions Hitler, even though it is set in 1938, the year of Kristallnacht and the Munich crisis. Even though the sort of people Katey starts running with are the sort of people who complained about Roosevelt, there's nothing about him, either, or about Lindbergh. Or Father Coughlin.

Well, maybe Katey is just not interested in politics, though her father is a Russian emigré, and Katey might have grown up hearing a lot of opinions about Jews and Bolsheviks.

Once I noticed all the politics that are not here, and the oddly discordant anti-Semitic note that was, I was more than a little disenchanted with Katey and her novel. Whose 1930s are these? Does Katey ever look at a newspaper or catch a newsreel? And then politics does suddenly get a cameo when one of her wealthy friends, Wallace, heads for Spain, to fight with...the Republicans? Yeah, right. All the characters in this book sound like Franco people to me.


Micaella Lopez said...

I need to make time for this book, as it's one that I am really excited about! I am glad to hear that you loved it and that the author gets the female perspective just right. Excellent review today!

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Theobald said...

Actually, I did not love the book. I did not even like the book (see first sentence).