Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles (2011)

Reviewer:  BeezusKiddo

Rating: 5 Delicious homemade pierogies

Review:  This is the book that Breakfast at Tiffany's failed to be. Katey Kontent is an intelligent, strong-minded young woman brushing elbows with New York's blue bloods, never quite fitting in herself, but taking the city by storm. I loved this book.

It's not a typical pick for me-- I usually like mysteries, scary books, dark humor. Rules of Civility has none of those, and even has a touch of romance. That's usually not my style. But Katey's narrative voice hooked my right in, and I couldn't help myself. I finished this book in less than a week.

The synopsis, from Towles' website:

Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year-old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.

The story opens on New Year’s Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.

Katey's voice is so authentic that I was constantly surprised that this book was written by a man. Towles' captures the intricacies of female friendships, jealousies, and rivalries but never retreats to catfighting.

There are so many quote-worthy passages in this book that it took great restraint for me to only pick one to share:

If my father had made a million dollars, he wouldn't have eaten at La Belle Epoque. To him, restaurants were the ultimate expression of ungodly waste. For of all the luxuries that your money could buy a restaurant left you the least to show for it. A fur coat could at least be worn in winter to fend off the cold, and a silver spoon could be melted down and sold to a jeweler. But a porterhouse steak? You chopped it, chewed it, swallowed it, wiped your lips and dropped your napkin on your plate. That was that. And asparagus? My father would have sooner carried a twenty-dollar bill to his grave than spent it on some glamorous weed coated in cheese.

But for me, dinner at a fine restaurant was the ultimate luxury. It was the very height of civilization. For what was civilization but the intellect's ascendancy out of the doldrums of necessity (shelter, sustenance and survival) into the ether of the finely superfluous (poetry, handbags and haute cuisine)? So removed from daily life was the whole experience that when all was rotten to the core, a fine dinner could revive the spirits. If and when I had twenty dollars left to my name, I was going to invest it right here in an elegant hour that couldn't be hocked.

Before starting this book, my interest went back and forth. The synopsis didn't particularly grip me, and I named it as a book I planned to read in 2012 only because it was getting so much noise over at the BlogHer book club. My friend Regina lent it to me, and since I had finished up my book club books for the month, I decided to pick it up. I'm so glad I did, this book is a gem.

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