For readers who have had the chance to visit those cities, however infrequently, that means there is a body of literature, set across the decades if not centuries, that portrays the London or New York or Paris that we know only from our travels. I’m partial to those novels — there’s nothing better for a cold winter day than settling in with a book that brings back to life the locale of past vacations or explorations, even if the timing of the book is decades before my visits.
Author Amor Towles doesn’t quite fit that model completely. He was born and raised just outside Boston, graduated from Yale and Stanford and is the principal in a Manhattan investment firm — no Iowa cornfields in that CV. Rules of Civility, his first book, does deserve a place in the ranks of “New York novels”, however — and for this reader, a prominent one. Towles’ New York is not the gritty, steamy one of Philip Roth or Martin Amis (in Money) — it is much more the society New York of Edith Wharton, perhaps closest of all to the New York of Truman Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Answered Prayers.
I was already making those comparisons when I came upon the following passage on page 206 of Towles novel. This is a very long excerpt for a review, but I’ve repeated it for a reason — if it strikes a chord with you, I’m pretty certain you’ll like Rules of Civility and, if it doesn’t, you might want to move on to something else immediately:
Autumn in New York,
Why does it seem so inviting?
Autumn in New York,
It spells the thrill of first-nighting.
Written by a Belarussian immigrant named Vernon Duke, “Autumn in New York” practically debuted as a jazz standard. Within fifteen years of its first being played, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald had all explored its sentimental bounds. Within twenty-five, there would be interpretations of the interpretations by Chet Baker, Sonny Stitt, Frank Sinatra, Bud Powell, and Oscar Peterson. The very question that the song asks of us about autumn, we could ask ourselves of the song: Why does it seem so inviting?
Presumably, one factor is that each city has its own romantic season. Once a year, a city’s architectural, cultural, and horticultural variables come into alignment with the solar course in such a way that men and women passing each other on the thoroughfares feel an unusual sense of romantic promise. Like Christmastime in Vienna or April in Paris.
That’s the way New Yorkers feel about fall. Come September, despite the waning hours, despite the leaves succumbing to the weight of gray autumnal rains, there is a certain relief to having the long days of summer behind us; and there’s a paradoxical sense of rejuvenation in the air.
The reference to Duke’s Autumn in New York is quite appropriate for this novel — the song first appeared in 1934; after a short prologue set in 1966, Towles’ story proper opens on New Year’s Eve, 1937. The tune has had staying power: Wikipedia, in what it acknowledges is an incomplete list, cites over 200 recorded versions, more than 50 since 2000 (KfC’s iPod playlist has six, I should say). And while the New York that Towles portrays may be that of more than 60 years ago, it too has equal staying power — this is a very “uptown” book and present-day visitors to the City will find many recognizable references.
The author also uses that prologue to alert the reader that his story will be a bittersweet one. Katey Kontent, who will narrate the novel, and her husband are at the opening of a photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art featuring portraits taken on the New York subway, candid camera style, by Walker Evans (several of which feature later in the book to introduce new chapters). Katey recognizes one of the subjects, the then twenty-eight-year-old Tinker Grey, a banker known to both her and her husband at the time, but here “ill shaven, in a threadbare coat”:
Twenty pounds underweight, he had almost lost the blush on his cheeks, and his face was visibly dirty. But his eyes were bright and alert and trained straight ahead with the slightest hint of a smile on his lips, as if it was he who was studying the photographer. As if it was he who was studying us. Staring across three decades, across a canyon of encounters, looking like a visitation. And looking every bit himself.
The photo takes Katey back to the last day of 1937 and New Year’s Eve at The Hotspot, “a wishfully named nightclub in Greenwich Village that was four feet underground”. Katey was raised in Brooklyn so her “magnet” New York is Manhattan, just across the river — she’s works in the typing pool at a large law firm. Her roommate (and partner for the evening), Eve Ross, is more typical of the stylish young New Yorkers of the era (and today, for that matter):
Eve hailed from somewhere at the upper end of Indiana’s economic scale. Her father was driven to the office in a company car and she ate biscuits for breakfast cut in the pantry by a Negro named Sadie. She had gone to a two-year finishing school and had spent a summer in Switzerland pretending to study French. But if you walked into a bar and met her for the first time, you wouldn’t be able to tell if she was a corn-fed fortune hunter or a millionairess on a tear. All you could tell for sure was that she was a bona fide beauty. And that made the getting to know her so much less complicated.
Katey and Eve may share a room in a rundown boarding house, but that matters little — they are in New York with all its attractions and opportunities. One of which turns out to be banker Tinker Grey, who walks through the door of The Hotspot in his cashmere coat and, drawn by Eve’s flittering eyelashes, joins the two. No boarding house for Tinker — he has an apartment in The Beresford at 211 Central Park West (yes, that building too has its own Wikipedia page). What follows is a year in the ups and downs (more downs than ups, it has to be said) of three young thrill-seekers.
Through a combination of good fortune and good sense, Katey gets out of the typing pool and finds a job as a publishing assistant at a new lifestyle magazine soon to be launched by Condé Nast, a convenient device that brings New York fixtures like the Plaza, Ritz, Dakota and others into play. Her world starts to spin much, much faster.
If it is not already obvious, a suspenseful “plot” is not the star of Rules of Civility — well-executed as it is, the action is as predictable as the seasons that supply the timeline of the novel. The “star” is the way Towles captures New York. I’ll offer one more extended example:
On the Thursday after Wallace left, I wandered over to Fifth Avenue after work to see the windows at Bergdorf’s. A few days before, I’d noticed that they’d been curtained for the installation of the new displays.
Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, I always looked forward to the unveiling of the new seasons at Bergdorf’s. Standing before the windows, you felt like a tsarina receiving one of those jeweled eggs in which an elaborate scene in miniature has been painstakingly assembled. With one eye closed you spy inside, losing all sense of time as you marvel at every transporting detail.
And transporting was the right word. For the Bergdorf’s windows weren’t advertising unsold inventory at 30% off. They were designed to change the lives of women up and down the avenue — offering envy to some, self-satisfaction to others, but a glimpse of possibility to all. And for the Fall season of 1938, my Fifth Avenue Fabergé did not disappoint.
The theme of the windows was fairy tales, drawing on the well-known works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen; but in each set piece the “princess” had been replaced with the figure of a man, and the “prince” with one of us.
That excerpt is a teaser, not a spoiler — just to extend the tease a bit, you have to read the book to find which character gets the Schiaperelli and who gets the Chanel.
A final note: This hardly seems the kind of book that KfC would rate highly. Oprah’s Magazine and People loved it, it was an NYT bestseller and it’s a book club favorite (one entrepreneur actually offers New York tours based on it) — those normally are all serious warning signs, not recommendations, for this reader. All of that hype was offset for me by anokatony at Tony’s Book World who called Rules of Civility “a smart stylish elegant novel” and placed it second on his list of 2011 favorites. Tony’s nod carries a lot of meaning for me: he introduced me to Maile Meloy on a previous best-of-year list and she has become a favorite — he didn’t go wrong with this unlikely choice either. If you have any affection at all for reading about the stylish side of New York (and I acknowledge many people don’t), Towles legitimately joins Wharton and Capote as a worthwhile and highly entertaining source.