The Great Gatsby’s little sister

Reporter Sally MacDonald reads Amor Towles' "The Rules of Civility" in her Summer Reading Challenge.

After the hectic pace I’ve set over the past few weeks of my reading challenge, I ground to a halt this week.

I was worn down by the quick summer reads I had chosen for the past month or so, and leery to pick up another book.

In fact, I took a few days off, which was a mistake because when I finally did pick up “The Rules of Civility”, it required far more attention to each passage than I have needed to pay to books recently.

So my Sunday deadline slipped past, and I found myself writing this review on the edge of deadline. I suspect I will be doing that for the rest of the challenge now – which is far less enjoyable.

***

“The Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles is like “The Great Gatsby”‘s little sister. A little less poetic, a little more innocent, and set in the opulent high rises of Manhattan’s Upper East Side rather than the mansions of Long Island. Yet its themes, its morals and its voice is strikingly similar.

It is, of course, lavish praise to compare the debut work from modern-day New York author Towles to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American classic. Let me take a moment to justify that praise.

After a “proletariat” New York upbringing, Katey Kontent sees 1938 begin with her gregarious roommate Eve Ross in a dive jazz bar, trying to make three dollars stretch as far as it possibly can. In walks a well groomed young man in an expensive coat; Eve whispers “dibbs” as Tinker Grey sits down beside them.

They quickly form a friendship, and the connection is cemented just a few days into the new year when the three are in a car accident that leaves Eve permanently scarred.

To carry the Gatsby comparison forward, Tinker is Gatsby, Eve is Daisy and Katey is Nick.

Over the heady days of 1938, the three friends come in and out of each other’s life. The relationships between the three are at once loving, self-destructive, uplifting and surprising.

There are far too many beautifully crafted, flawed but interesting characters to mention. Each one has a profound impact on Katey, who as narrator somehow manages to be both cynical and full of wonder.

In a single year, these characters – with Tinker and Eve at the forefront – influence Katey’s life in drastic ways. She is a profoundly different woman at the conclusion of the year than at the commencement.

And that’s saying nothing about the events in Tinker and Eve’s lives. In fact, the prologue of the novel has Katey at a photography exhibition in the 1960s, where photos taken on the subway in the late 1930s are displayed. She happens upon two photos of Tinker: one in 1938, at the tail end of the Depression, where he is well-groomed and wealthy but world-weary; and one in 1939, where he is poor, dirty, underweight, yet bright, alert and smiling.

The tale is set in the opulent apartments and dining rooms of Manhattan, where the “rules of civility” are played out at every table. This setting also harkens back to Gatsby, especially when Katey travels to Long Island for a party.

But it’s Katey’s assessment of the people who inhabit this scene that reminded me the most of Gatsby’s Nick Carraway – the incorruptible force that observes the best and worst of human nature.

“To the unpracticed eye they all looked of a piece – exhibiting poise secured by the alchemy of wealth and station. But aspiration and envy, disloyalty and lust – these too were presumably on display, if only one knew where to look.”

Circumstances bring those around Katey to a fever pitch, only to self-combust and transform into a truer version of themselves.

With such heavy literary influences, Towles could hardly go wrong. But he does more than simply mimic Fitzgerald; he creates another world just as rich, just as beautiful, just as profound.

His prose is not quite at the same level; there is no “borne back ceaselessly into the past”.

But with every page I turned in this novel, I was enveloped more by the era, the city, the heroine, her flawed companions, and her fallen idols.

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