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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, 2011, * * *

Amor Towles stylish, elegant and deliberately anachronistic debut novel transports you back to Manhattan in 1938, just before the sharp lines between social stratification were smudged by the leveling influences of World War II and the G.I. Bill.  Rules of Civility takes its title from young George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, all 110 of which appear in the novel's appendix. Like the literary touchstones he evokes -- F. Scott Fitzgerald,  Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss -- Towles writes with grace and verve about the mores and manners of a society on the cusp of radical change. Towles uses the somewhat contrived device of a long flashback to tel his story, but it works.  His starting point is the 1966 opening of Walker Evans' "Many Are Called" show at the Museum of Modern Art, attended by his then middle-aged urbane narrator and her husband. Among the photographs -- in which Evans captured New Yorkers on the subway with a hidden camera in the late 1930s --the narrator recognizes two shots taken a year apart, of a man she used to know named Tinker Grey.  See these photographs send her back to reminiscences of the year she met Grey, a turning point in her life. Towles novel follows three main characters, Tinker Grey, Katey Content and Eve Ross and is about the randomness of chance and how most of us "have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options" which will determine the course of the resty of ouir lives . It is also about maintaining integrity and the capacity for wonder in the face of insidious monetary sway.Filled with snappy dialogue, sharp observations and an array of terrifically drawn characters with names like Dicky Vanderwhite, Mason Tate and Wallce Wolcott, Rules of Civility  takes the readyer to Gatsbyesque parties on Long Island estates, jazz dives, lushly appointed Conde Nast offices, deluxe suites at The Plaza, posh restaurants and flop houses.  The book reinforces the kind of improbable-but-true serendipity that plots the lives of people in their 20s - in whatever epoch - before they kow the weight that decisions made in a moment might have.

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