On New Year’s Eve in 1937, boardinghouse roommates and partners in crime Kate Kontent and Eve Ross are in a Greenwich Village dive bar, trying to make three dollars stretch for an evening of drinks when a handsome stranger in a five-hundred-dollar cashmere coat sits down at the table next to them.
“Dibs,” Eve remarks coolly to Kate before batting her lashes at the fellow and asking him to join them. Tinker Grey, oozing WASP charm, moves to their table and lights their cigarettes with a monogrammed solid-gold lighter that will accidently end up in Kate’s coat pocket at the end of the evening.
This could be the opening scene of an old black-and-white movie, the kind I can never get enough of (think Gary Cooper, Eve Arden, and Myrna Loy), but it is in fact the first pages of Amor Towles’s marvelous, sparkling debut novel, RULES OF CIVILITY. The book follows these three friends as they form an ever-evolving love triangle and travel through the ups and downs of gimlet-eyed high society in Depression-era Manhattan.
Towles delivers a ride as giddy and delicious as the best martini you’ve ever had. The trio journeys through 1938, following their stars and their hearts. Kate will be jettisoned out of the typing pool to the offices of Condé Nast, Eve will be sidelined by circumstance, and Tinker will reveal himself as a bit of a mystery man.
It is Kate—a whip-smart bookish career gal who can match the men drink for drink—whose story drives the book as she struggles to find a meaningful career and a suitable man (who may or may not be Tinker). Slightly jaded, caustically witty but ever hopeful, she is a girl who’s seen it all but never stops searching. I identified deeply with her pursuit of true love and important work, as I think anyone who is young, or was once, will.
With nods to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, and a breathtaking Jamesian twist that blows up like a stick of dynamite, RULES OF CIVILITY is not only a thumping good story, it is also a perfect rendering of pre-war New York City—a valentine to a glittering polished-steel-and-glass jewel that is long gone. So pull up a chair, put on some jazz music, make that cocktail, and prepare to be charmed by this novel of manners.