Since I loved the book A Gentleman in Moscow, I’ve had this other novel of his on my to-be-read list. I’m glad to now have read Rules of Civility, which is a sophisticated, retro-era novel of manners, in homage to New York City. As someone who lived in New York City for seven years in my twenties, this may have heightened my enjoyment of this novel.
This is a flashback story of a woman thirty years later, looking back at the New York City of her own twenties. That was 1938 for her, which was a time of art deco, jazz clubs, gin and martinis, Adirondack “camps” and Long Island mansions, all enveloped in Billie Holiday’s sinuous voice. This book is earnest but ephemerally dazzling, like jazz is itself, both warm and rich like a contralto, while remaining cool and languid as a saxophone.
I’d compare it more to City of Girls, or The Great Gatsby, but liked it far more than either of them. The atmospheric writing here is better, and the main character, Katya, daughter of a Russian immigrant that reinvented herself as Katey Kontent, is far more likable and genuine. She is level-headed, quick-witted, enterprising, and kind. We admire her pluck and tranquility, a combination, rarely fused, but so effective when they are.
Here are some of the things Katey says to give you an idea of her:
- “As a quick aside, let me observe that in moments of high emotion….if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say. This is one of the finer maxims that I’ve discovered in life. And you can have it, since it’s been of no use to me.”
- “I have no doubt that they were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”
One of the other things to like about Katey is that she is a working girl; she is more of a blue stocking than a blue blood. Yes, she is out for self actualization, but would just as soon stay in and read, than go to a glamorous party. She is not a social climber so much as she’s looking for her own level. She finds companionship with great authors of every stripe. Her conversation is often filled with bookish references– everything from Chekov, to Charles Dickens, to Agatha Christie.
For example, “So long as a man is faithful to himself, everything is in his favor, government, society, the very sun, moon, and stars” is quoted from Henry David Thoreau in Walden, which is Katey’s favorite book. As another example, the title of the novel echoes one of the same name by George Washington (see photo below), which is recommended to Katey by someone who utilized it. I enjoyed all the quotes and themed allusions to other books throughout this novel. Also, Katey’s bookishness is a vehicle that contributes to her character’s steady, wise personality.
Here are a few other pertinent quotes from this novel:
- “One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements.”
- “Anyone can buy a car or a night on the town. Most of us shell out our days like peanuts. One in a thousand can look at the world with amazement. I don’t mean gawking at the Chrysler Building. I’m talking about the wing of a dragonfly. The tale of the shoeshine. Walking through an unsullied hour with an unsullied heart.”
- “We give people the liberty of fashioning themselves in the moment – a span of time that is so much more manageable, stageable, controllable than is a lifetime.”
This author is spectacular at description, and in communicating both aura and ambiance through dreamy, lyrical prose. The writing is dense yet easily fluid, and the dialogue masterfully shows contrasting social strata beyond stereotypes. Not often do I feel a male writer is successful in constructing a believable female character, but this author manages it with impressive agility, finesse, and assurance. I look forward to what he writes next, especially since both of his books are so different, while uniquely captivating.
This book is about the struggle of individuals to find their place in society, to find trade-offs that they can live with, all while grasping the right things and the right people. It seems like it is about how much people expose or hide their true, authentic selves, gauging and manipulating the extent of deception or reality, but in the end, it is simply about choices. Somewhere between Anne Grandyn on the one hand, and Wallace Wolcott on the other, there is a midway point that needs to be discovered. We cheer for Katey as she quite circuitously does just that.
I can relate to Katey looking back on her twenties with both regret and compassion. You do the best that you can to make the most of the time and place, while still remaining true to yourself. It was an imperfect path, but it got you to where you are.
I recommend Rules of Civility, and give it a quiet five stars.