Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

This is my second novel by this author. The first one was A Gentleman in Moscow which I highly recommend.

Towles’ masterful prologue still haunts me. I’ve never gotten so excited by a prologue. It sets the stage perfectly for a flashback of the main character’s life. Set in 1930s New York City, Katherine Kontent’s understanding of herself and others is set in motion by the fateful meeting of a man named Tinker.

Like other royals of the gilded age, the Vanderbilts’ roots reached back three generations to an indentured servant. Hailing from the town of De Bilt, he had sailed from Holland to New York in steerage, and when he stepped off the boat he was simply known as Jan from De Bilt —until Cornelius built his fortune and classed up the moniker.

But you don’t have to own a railroad to shorten or lengthen your name. Teddy to Tinker. Eve to Evelyn. Katya to Kate.

In New York City, these sorts of alterations come free of charge.

I finished this novel today and I needed to get my thoughts out before I lost that special feeling of a completed novel. My thoughts are fresh and ready to be released. Towles knows how to describe things. When said like that I realize it does not sound like the most exciting thing, but it happens to be very satisfying. Sometimes there are so many descriptions it seems like the author is sacrificing plot for details, but you would be wrong. In this novel you have to take your time with his descriptions rather than rush through them because at the end you will wish you paid more attention. They ground the characters to the place and time they are in.

I caught up with the others outside, giving a little prayer of thanks to no one in particular. Because when some incident sheds a favorable light on an old and absent friend, that’s about as good a gift as chance intends to offer.

As I was reading the book I couldn’t tell how I felt about it. Usually while I’m reading I am very concentrated on the plot and am set on imagining what will come next, but to me that isn’t possible with this novel. There was no real rush to get to the end which is a different experience for me. Every character Towles creates is an important player even if they seem minor, which I guess is the mark of a truly gifted writer. I didn’t understand the point of most of the characters other than to be a frame for Kate’s life in New York City but about 2/3 of the way through, when a huge plot twist happens, I learned it was an incorrect notion. I think my favorite part is the ending because it brings all the elements of the novel together and I’ve always had a fancy for novels where nothing seems to really fit together until the very end.

—That’s a Grand Canyon of a tale, she said. A mile deep and two miles wide.

The metaphor was apt. A million years of social behavior had worn away this chasm and now you had to pack a mule to get to the bottom of it.

I suppose I suspected that some display of sororal sympathy was in order; or if not that, then outrage. But Bitsy exhibited neither. Like a seasoned lecturer, she seemed satisfied that we had covered the necessary ground for the day. She signaled the waiter and paid the bill.

Amor Towles has another book coming out this year and I know I will be reading it.

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