Rules of Civility takes place in post-Depression, pre-WWI Manhattan, among New York’s elite, those who wish to be New York’s elite and the clubs, parties and restaurants they frequented. The majority of the novel takes place in 1938 and is told from the point of view of Katey (born Katya) Kontent, described by her friend, Eve, as “the hottest bookworm you’ll ever meet.”
Katey is the well-read, orphaned daughter of Russian emigrants, Eve (born Evelyn) is the naturally blonde, (naturally?) ambitious transplant from Indiana, and Tinker (born Theodore) Grey is the young, moneyed banker they meet on New Year’s Eve, 1937. Eve immediately calls dibs on Tinker and his flawless cashmere overcoat but Tinker seems to prefer the company of both girls.
The flaw with that particular plan is pointed out by Chernoff (owner and proprietor of Chernoff’s, an émigré club that caters to both Russian revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries) who asks Katey:
“Who’s the young man? Yours or your friend’s?”
“A little bit of both, I guess.”
Chernoff smiled. He had two gold teeth.
“That doesn’t work for long, my slender one.”
“Says the sun, the moon and the stars.”
Of course, as it turns out, the heavens (and Chernoff) were right. Listen to the heavens, Folks, they know what’s what!
Dibs being super-binding in 1938, Katey gives up the guy, but she’s not the only one who doesn’t get what she wants. No one, not Katey, not Eve, and not Tinker are what they seem when we meet them at the tail-end of 1937. Katey is a hot bookworm, but her ambitions are on par with Eve’s, she just pursues what she wants in a different way. And Eve is ambitious, but what she craves most, is independence. As for Tinker, he’s probably the least like what he appears to be.
The book is beautifully written and Towles does a wonderful job of invoking time and place, but I have to say that Katey remained an enigma to me; which was a bit frustrating given that she was the main character. I understand Tinker and his motivations, I even understood Eve and, of the three, she was given the least amount of attention from the author. But, Katey… I was not, and am still not, sure of. She’s bookish, but not a true Bohemian of the time. She seems more bookish than ambitious, but then ends up being the most ambitious of them all. She’s both sentimental and exceedingly, almost overwhelmingly practical. And she may even be a little ruthless.
All in all, I’d say 3.5 stars because the writing is stunning but there was that disconnect, at least for me, with the narrator.