After reading and enjoying A Gentleman in Moscow, I picked up Rules of Civility, a book I’d checked out from the library before but never actually read. Tl;dr: It was good, but not as good as Moscow. I think Gentleman in Moscow corrected some of the things that annoyed me in this book, was slightly better edited, and had more of a “punch” that resonated long after finishing the book.
The story is about Katie Kontent, and her life in New York in the late 30s. Her roommate Eve, a midwestern beauty. One evening they run into the well-heeled Tinker Grey at a jazz club and through their relationship with him (and various others), they enter the world of the very wealthy.
Towles is a great writer. He peppers his narrative with charming asides, contemplative moments, and sharp musings on human nature and proclivities. And besides that, he has a great sense for how much to describe – he describes the trappings of wealth with panache, but knows when to stop and get on with the narrative. He is a joy to read. And this book is a lovely taste of a world that sometimes seems very far away – a world between World Wars and just about to emerge from the Great Depression.
My complaint about this book, and where it falls short of Gentleman for me, is in Katie’s characterization. While Towles does fill in her backstory a little – daughter of Russian immigrants, dark hair, likes to read, there’s honestly not much more. I couldn’t help feeling that she was kind of a cipher. We know a lot about Eve – her mannerisms, her attitudes, even her physicality – and Tinker – his manner, his twinkly smile, his taste in coats. We learn a lot about other supporting characters based on their very good descriptions. But Katie? She’s kind of Too Good To Be True, such that I ended up feeling she was kind of…boring? She sits at home reading Dickens but also parties hard! She kind of stumbles into her job but turns out to be just so good at it! She turns heads, but she’s not as glam as Eve! Frustratingly, the events of the novel seem to find her rather than the other way around. Which is fine, I guess, for a narrator. Honestly it wouldn’t have bothered me so much, except that at the end an important character takes her aside and says something along the lines of how wonderful and unusual she is. It felt a little tell rather than show. I felt the book would have been improved by giving her a few more obvious flaws, or something about her that was truly unusual that was also somehow critical to the story.
Overall though, this feels like a nitpick. I enjoyed the book and will recommend it. It’s kind of a frilly story, but told with serious writing, which is a hard thing to do!