Literary wisdom has it that it is often easiest to write what you know, but with his debut novel, investment banker Amor Towles couldn’t have strayed farther from his own life. Raised in suburban Boston in the 1970s, he somehow manages to conjure an impeccably detailed, poetically rendered portrayal of the complicated rise of a professional woman in 1930s New York.
On New Year’s Eve, 1937, Katey Kontent and Eve Ross leave their boardinghouse for a night in a Greenwich Village jazz club with nothing but $3 and boundless dreams between them. Brooklyn-bred Katey hails from poor, Russian immigrant stock, trying to rise through the ranks as a secretary in a Wall Street law firm. Stubborn Eve, who comes from Wisconsin money, got her publishing job thanks to family connections, but otherwise is determined to make it on her own. Katey and Eve are best friends, sharing everything from dresses to their boardinghouse bedroom, and they think that nothing could come between them—until the charming, debonair Tinker Grey walks into the bar, and Eve calls dibs.
The novel is governed by the chance encounters and seemingly small moments that end up making a difference in people’s lives—an interesting theme, but one that ultimately undermines the absolutely tremendous tension that Towles builds between Katey, Eve and Tinker. The triangle is shattered early on by an unexpected incident, which is perhaps true to life, but losing such nuanced momentum feels like a shame. Still, Towles’ prose is enormously promising, and Rules of Civility is a worthwhile read just for the pleasure of watching the New York landscape come alive under his pen, from the decadent 21 Club and the grand apartments of the Beresford to the stodgy Chelsea boardinghouses and lively Russian bars on the Lower East Side.