Who knew that George Washington wrote a small book/pamphlet entitled “100 Rules of Civility”, to instruct young men in the rules of accepted social behavior? Apparently Amor Towles did and based his first novel on the “Rules of Civility”.
The Prologue to the novel is narrated by a middle aged woman who is at an art gallery with her husband viewing photographs taken of people in New York City in the 1930’s. She recognizes the subject of two contrasting photos and is taken back three decades in her memory.
The story begins on a snowy New Year’s Eve night in 1937. The narrator is Katey (Katya) Kontent. She and her roommate, Eve (Evelyn) Ross, from a boarding house for young women, are headed to a Greenwich Village jazz bar with three dollars between them to ring in the New Year. Enters, Tinker (Theodore) Grey. (Everyone has a nickname.) His eyes are royal blue, he is dressed in a tuxedo with a cashmere coat over his arm. The girls are intrigued. He buys them drinks and leaves, to instantly return, with a bottle of champagne. The three make New Year’s resolutions and plans to see each other before the week is over. But by the end of the first week of 1938 a tragic accident occurs and the lives of the three new friends are changed forever.
Our narrator/protagonist, Katey, enters the fast lane of the late 1930’s with glitzy New York and Long Island parties and a new glamorous job. Eve and Tinker are on their own glamorous, disastrous journey. Their journeys take us through the best of New York City in the late 1930’s. It is almost as if the city itself is a character.
We watch as these three characters evolve, disintegrate and reinvent themselves. And what we see is not always what really is. Why does the charming, rich, successful Tinker carry a worn, underlined copy of George Washington’s “100 Rules of Civility”? Why does Eve rebuke all offers of financial help from her well meaning father? Why does Katey try not to talk about her parents?
Amor Towles has written a wonderful period piece with relatable characters and a strong, witty and reliable narrator who relates an intriguing, dramatic story.