I’ve just returned from a business trip to New York, during which I had the perfect reading material: Amor Towles’s chic but shrewd Rules of Civility. While it shares the ineffable style of A Gentleman in Moscow, it has a different spirit: harder, wiser and more cynical. It conjures up Manhattan in the late 1930s: a city of walk-ups and steel fire-escapes; jazz quartets in smoky underground bars; and glittering parties in riverside mansions. And, at the book’s heart, are two young, scrappy and hungry heroines: Katey Kontent and Eve Ross. Both, in their own way, are self-fashioned and, as they wait on the brink of 1938, they can almost taste the potential in the air. Right now they might be eking out their last dollars in a downtown bar but, one day, New York is going to spill its gorgeous bounty right into their silken laps. It’s just a matter of finding the lever to get things moving. And, by happy chance, the catalyst is about to walk into both their lives…
When Theodore ‘Tinker’ Grey wanders into a jazz bar on New Year’s Eve in search of his brother, he shifts both Eve’s and Katey’s lives onto a different track. For predatory Eve, who plays upon men as a jazz-musician upon his trumpet, Tinker proves to be the way to make her life upon her own terms. For Katey, who is destined to ascend the hard but satisfying way, through typing pools and secretarial courses and pointed brilliance, he opens the door onto a dazzling new world. As she watches Eve and Tinker negotiating their complicated bond, Katey quietly consolidates her hand, taking in the blinding brilliance of New York’s captivating and superficial elite. Perhaps there’s an element of the tortoise and the hare going on here, if the hare was self-centred and prone to reinventing herself, and the tortoise was ever-so-slightly Machiavellian.
It’s a bit of a cliche to refer to someone as a chameleon: a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact, not one in a million can do that. But there are tens of thousands of butterflies: men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings – one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage – and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.
The plot is wonderful, of course, but most of the charm comes from Katey’s observation of character. She is a classic New Yorker, born and bred on the Lower East Side, a second-generation immigrant. She has sloughed off her name and her history and saved up for the classic accessories that a girl needs to make her way in the world: a little black dress, a pair of good shoes and a fashionably indistinct past. She has the wit to be impressed by her new opportunities – but not too much – and the wisdom to be charmed by the right people – but not too deeply. For New York is a stage upon which everyone presents their best and present selves. Behind the chauffeurs and the doormen and the canopied apartment blocks, no one is quite what they seem in this sybaritic paradise. And, while opportunity may knock, the line between haves and have-nots is always stark and Katey never forgets which side of that line she falls upon:
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.
Throughout the book, I found echoes of other classic New York stories: here were The Great Gatsby, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and a classier, harder, more ruthless version of Sex and the City. Katey’s career reminded me of The Best of Everything and Mad Men and, perhaps ever so slightly, of The Devil Wears Prada. And, to my surprise, there was also an underlying thread which reminded me very strongly of Beware of Pity: the way in which guilt and good manners can direct a life in spite of personal desire. Everything unfolds like a vast game of Snakes and Ladders, in which fortunes can be made and lost, and the young and beautiful – of both sexes – rely ultimately upon the favours of their elders.
The novel is cool and glamorous and a little hard, channelling the very spirit of New York. Towles writes with extreme elegance and, while the Rules of Civility never quite touched my heart in the same way that A Gentleman in Moscow did – ironically, it challenges our faith in human nature, rather than strengthening it – I thought it was wonderful. It was well worth the wait, to read the novel in the proper setting. And it’s tempting, though probably misguided, to think that nothing much has changed – that artists still posture and argue in the Village; that elegant older women still discreetly fund young favourites; and that, with the right dress and the right attitude, a young woman can conquer the world.
As my taxi sped me back towards Central Park from my hotel on my final morning, we paused on the Upper West Side and I glanced idly out of the window to see a grand apartment block with its long canopies and uniformed doormen. And then I noticed the writing on those canopies. The Beresford. I grinned, tipped an imaginary cap and, as the lights changed at the junction, watched its cream awnings recede behind me, until they were lost among the trees.