When I started writing this post, I was in the midst of hating Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. Now I realise, it’s not the book’s fault: I just don’t really like New York. Or I don’t like characters that don’t evolve and have perfect legs. Or I don’t appreciate books that make me want to drink way, way too much – rather like Chocolat makes one want to eat Thorntons. Or perhaps it made me fearful, being in my twenties, of the decisions that I am making that, the author warns, are the “individual choices [that] become the means by which life crystallizes loss”.
But there were other, structural difficulties I encountered. The level of debt to Breakfast at Tiffany’s or any of the Fitzgerald novels was maddening. The heavy dusting of literary references – Dickens, Wharton, James, Hemingway, Christie, T.S. Eliot – meant that the book had difficulty breathing for all the worthiness of the author’s reading list. Then there were the painfully stereotypical characters – brawny Yale types, sharp older women who live out of hotel suites, megalomaniacal magazine editors, matronly matrons, blonde midwestern girls… Boy could this book do with sounding a little less like a story that desperately wants to be made into a film. (The rights are currently in negotiation).
Katey Kontent, born in a dodgy part of New York is making her own sweet way up the secretarial chain as a bright, bored and beautiful young thing. She hangs out with rich Tinker Grey and her blonde-bombshell friend Eve, who end up in a car crash, leaving Eve disfigured but still gorgeous. Tinker and Eve leave together for Europe. Meanwhile Katey reaches the apex of her career at “quintessential” Quiggin and Hale, at which point she “quits”. Then a job for a week in a dusty publishing office before being snapped up by Conde Nast big-shot Mason Tate as his personal assistant. (And now I’m thinking Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep, and the comparison isn’t exactly illuminating). Throw in sex in a bathtub, a speakeasy, a gun shoot, a down-and-out painter, a camel coat and a pair of diamond earrings – oh, and copious amounts of privilege, braying and booze – and this is the world Towles has conjured. Perfectly researched, but somewhat obsessed with The Great Gatsby.
Some will adore this. It’s indulgent, fun, frivolous. And there was, of course, the evident value of a book that I feel reluctant to put down. (Well, at least once I started skim-reading). But there were too many ostentatiously-researched asides: Tinker’s visit to London and his one-off appreciation for “Brits” and their shoemakers; Katey’s understanding of cards; the war and how one got there as WASP (on the Queen Mary, then hot-footing it out of Paris to go fight). Everything was right, it was the substance of the atmosphere, but history has a habit of leaving loose ends, and the asides were rarely revisited, never structurally important. You get the feeling they were more fun to write than to read.
One reviewer says: “All you care about is what Katey Kontent does next” (that’s Kontent, as in a state of being, not Kontent, as in the content of a book, Towles helpfully points out to us halfway through. As if the double-edged pun wasn’t already thriving in her name, as sophisticated as a fungus under damp plaster.) But no, I didn’t particularly care what Katey did next, but I was vaguely interested – a bit like someone you know as a friend-of-a-friend with a glamorous life you partially understand. I wasn’t convinced by the photographic exhibition that loosely underpins the whole narrative. I was confused by the sudden and infrequent shifts to Tinker’s perspective, marked by italics and the heavy-breathing third person. And I found I couldn’t care less about the denouement, absent as it was of any personal growth on the part of Katey. The real “character” (to steal a bad trope from any reviewer of the urban novel) is Manhattan – the place of dreams, possibilities, the place you don’t ever quite want to get to but want to spend your whole life in anticipation of it. Rules of Civility is a book, like Manhattan is a city, in which the excitement of the expectation (see, for instance, the best-seller lists of all the US east coast papers) fails to live up to the actuality. But it did make me long for a martini. Damn.