By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli
The back book jacket of Amor Towles’ The Rules of Civility, has a quote from Publisher’s Weekly [starred review]: “[A] smashing debut…remarkable for its strong narrative, original characters and a voice influenced by Fitzgerald and Capote, but clearly true to itself.”
Okay. Before I read this blurb from Publisher’s Weekly, I read the novel. Throughout most of my reading, I kept wishing I were re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or his Tender Is The Night, or his short stories [“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is one of my favorites]. The nuances of Fitzgerald’s writing: his turn of phrase, his sophisticated narrative, and his poignant characters always tug at my heartstrings, as well as at my literary aesthete.
At first, I anticipated a fine read, one following the protagonist through the years 1937-1940, as Katey Kontent navigated the intricacies of New York society, the upper and the not so upper stradas of it. Narrated in first person, Katey [cue Lauren Bacall in an imagined movie version minus her husky voice and slinky prowess] offers a generally clear-eyed, somewhat astute assessment of those around her and the events that affect them all in some shape or form. The one character I found intriguing was that of Tinker Grey. At first glance, he seems like a roué, yet as the story progresses, we learn he is far more complicated than that. While Katey loved him and he her, the course of true love rarely runs smoothly in this novel, not even at the end with an Epilogue. For me, an epilogue is the tidying up, the sweeping of the floor to fast-forward the reader to what happens down the proverbial road. In other words, I’m not always of fan of the epilogue, but that is more of a personal preference than a condemnation of this book’s one.
I had a hard time settling into this novel. I would read some chapters, and then put the book down for a day or so, pick it up again and forge ahead. I found I had to keep convincing myself to read the book. The reason I forced myself to return to it was that I had read laudatory reviews of it. Like quite a few new books that I read, I find myself less invested in what happens. Usually I return to a beloved book to feed my literary soul, or more often than not, I return to my own writing after reading a classic. Indeed, the details of the setting in The Rules of Civility, of the era, of the characters consuming the pages were well researched and drawn. My ambivalence had to do with the fact that I neither cared much about the characters, nor what happened to them. I had a modicum of interest in the outcome of Tinker Grey. Frankly, I cared far more about Jay Gatsby and his self-absorbed love Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick, kept me wanting to read more and more of The Great Gatsby. A short novel, Gatsby weighs heavily and seems longer than it is because of the tightly woven narrative. I applaud Amor Towles and his novel, and I am going to read his latest one, in part because the storyline intrigues me. I’ll let you know how I fair with his second novel. Maybe I’ll even become a fan.
Ciao for now.