Every time I picked up the novel and saw the stylish black and turquoise Art Deco cover, my eye also absorbed the peculiar name of the author. It irritated me no end! Which was a pity, because the novel is very good indeed.
I’m still wrestling with the author’s name – surely it must be a pseudonym? Surely there are not parents on this planet who name their son ‘Amor’? unless they’re besotted Italians, I suppose. According to the blurb Mr Towles was born and raised outside Boston, Massachusetts and he is a principal at an investment firm in Manhattan: how much more of a Boston Brahmin can this man be? I can understand that he feels the need to conceal his identity when he produces a novel about the world of money, banking, socialites, set in Manhattan, albeit his novel is set in the late 1930s, but even so, why not simply write it under the nom-de-plume Bill Jones or somesuch? Every time I saw the name I couldn’t stop myself wrestling with anagrams or likely combinations : mortal? Roma? He can’t have gypsy antecedents, not if he’s from the Boston area. Or can he? And furthermore, the name has the odour of Romance Novels where heroines are called Delores and manly heroes have muscular …. oh never mind.
The novel. The narrator is Katey, whose Russian parents emigrated to the US; her given name is Katya, but she’s American now. She chums up with Eve, a mid-Western corn-fed blonde beauty who’s shaking off anxious parental shackles and living life on her own terms. Boy oh boy, do these girls have fun! Secretarial jobs by day, jazz clubs at night, drinking (everybody in this book drinks an awful lot of gin) running around Manhattan with a crowd of young people. Katey takes us through a year of her life, 1938, a year filled with friends, a new job on a stylish magazine, glamorous friends from the pedigreed estates in the Hamptons, parties, a convoluted love affair that ends in tears, more tears when a dear friend goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and doesn’t return.
We are watching the urban world of Manhattan, glittering like the diamonds that the girls all hanker after – and some succeed in snaffling. It’s a world of doormen, swanky apartments, chauffeured limos, servants, super sophisticated style and everybody is drinking Martinis; Katey’s preference is olives, not onions. But behind all the glitter and sophistication hearts get broken, there are deceptions and deceits, Katey grows up.
The novel opens in the late 60s but almost immediately reverts back to events in the 1930s for 99% of the book. For me one of the most startling elements of the novel is in the opening pages, where Katey casually passes off her recognition of the portrait photographs of Tinker Grey at a Manhattan art exhibition as … “He was an acquaintance of mine …in my circle of friends for a time .. “ Meanwhile her 1938 year was a pivotal period in her life, in which Tinker Grey played a major role. Her reaction to the portraits illustrates perfectly that we all have a hidden history, periods which we might never reveal, not even to our nearest and dearest – they’re too personal, too intimate, and perhaps ultimately irrelevant, although they do contribute to making us the people we are today.
And as for the curious title Rules of Civility this a portion of the title of a booklet fully entitled: The Young George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company & Conversation. Tinker Grey has studied these admonitions. Make of this what you will – you will have to read the novel yourself to appreciate their significance.
I can’t remember when last I read a book that so faithfully recreates an era. I enjoyed it so much that I have now forgiven the author for his name. However, I’m still toying with the anagram Storm Lawes … drat, I’ve got an extra ‘o’ left over ….