Rules of Civility begins as Kate, a wealthy middle-aged woman, and her husband attend a photo exhibit of famed photographer Walker Evans at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. The pictures are all candids, from the late 1930′s, and taken of unsuspecting people riding the subway. The artist deemed them so personal that he didn’t allow them to be released to the public until thirty years later. While studying the exhibit with her husband, Kate spots a familiar face—lean and weary Tinker Grey. Kate mentions recognizing and knowing the man in the photo. However, she doesn’t mention the deeper history to her husband, even though the exhibit prompts her to reminisce about meeting him in 1938, and the life that unfolds from choices made in that seminal year.
Rules of Civility is an exquisitely written book. Towles’ narrative places the reader solidly in the culture of the 1930′s, awash in class stratified New York along, the ins-and-outs of the social order, and the sudden moments of flexibility when its possible achieve upward mobility. Towles’ novel is chiefly comprised of a group of friends complicating their lives through the simplest of decisions, little realizing that they are setting the course of a lifetime. It’s fascinating to see how Kate’s relationship with her roommate and her best girlfriend Eve’s relationship grows and changes through their friendship with Tinker.
Kate’s character unfolds organically throughout the novel. The reader gets glimpses of her upbringing by immigrant parents, and the wisdom and life lessons her Russian father meant to convey through his various sayings. I loved getting to know her through her actions and memories. Kate spends the year navigating the successes and minefields of friendship, love, career; and she starts to recognize and develop an opinion on the meaning and advice her father tried to convey.
A few days after finishing Rules of Civility, I went through it randomly picking passages to read and everyone I came across was a gem. Towles has a gift for capturing the moments that define a lifetime, the marvelous history of New York in this vivacious and decadent time period. Historical fiction fans of New York I this era will revel in this charming tale which doubles as a slightly later coming of age story.