New York City of yore
Presenting the last book I completed in 2011! Rules of Civility was the perfect way to end a year of reading because this book was really fantastic. I first saw this cover on display at the Lexington Avenue Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers and it drew me in immediately. Well done on the publisher’s part… I’m a sucker for the glamorous lifestyles of decades past. After reading the book, though, the jacket graphics can’t compete with the descriptions in the novel – they paint a much more vivid picture of those years.
The book takes you back to the late 1930s, the old New York, following one Katey Kontent, a Russian from Brighton Beach Brooklyn, as she enters the world of New York high society through hard work, and cleverly engineered and also very serendipitous introductions to the “right” people. She falls for a mysterious banker, Tinker Grey, and their relationship teaches Katey that people are generally, regardless of breeding or upbringing, not exactly who they appear to be.
Towles is a terrific writer with wonderful turn of phrase and descriptions. The prose is wise and elegant, just like the characters it’s describing. Hopefully he’ll keep writing novels (this is his first, he’s actually a full-time investment banker). I took some of my favorite bits from the novel and put them here to give you a taste of his wonderful style:
1. On idealism “Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth ahave an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane — in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath — she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger… One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them againse elegance adn erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements.”
2. On emotions “Let me observe that in moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”
3. On growing up “Time should be our ally, not our enemy.”
4. On discovering the finer things in life “I found I had a burgeoning taste for flawlessness.”
5. On New York “That’s how New York City comes about — like a weather vane — or the head of a cobra. Time tells which.”
6. On New York high society “We knew the curmudgeonly old gent who stood behind the bar at Mory’s in New Haven. We knew how dull was the crowd at Maidstone. We knew the Dobsons and the Robsons and all the Fenimores. We knew a jib from a jibe, and Palm Beach from Palm Springs. We knew the difference between a sole fork, a salad fork…We all knew each other so well…”
7. On New York high society “Where for so many, New York was ultimately the sum of what they would never attain, for this crew New York was a city where the improbable would be made probable, the implausible plausible, and the impossible possible. So if you wanted to keep your head on straight, you had to be willing to establish a little distance, now and then.”
8. On luxury “For me, dinner at a fine restaurant was the ultimate luxury. It was the very height of civilization. For what was civilization but the intellect’s ascendancy out of the doldrums of necessity (shelter, sustenance and survival) into the ether of the finely superfluous (poetry, handbags and haute cuisine)? So removed from daily life was the whole experience that when all was rotten to the core a fine dinner could revive the spirits.”
9. On Bergdorf Goodman “Standing before the [Bergdorf’s] windows, you felt like a tsarina receiving one of those jeweled eggs in which an elaborate scene in miniature has been painstakinly assembled. With one eye closed you spy inside, losing all sense of time as you marvel at every transporting detail.”
10. On hierarchy “Most people have more needs than wants. That’s why they lead the lives they do. But the world is run by those whose wants outstrip their needs.”