First things first, I liked Rules of Civility better than A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles’ first book and I think I’m in the minority in this opinion so I’ll explain why. Both novels are well written and Towles clearly excels at bringing historical time periods to life, whether that’s New York in the 1930s, as seen in Rules of Civility or Moscow in the 1920s, as in A Gentleman in Moscow. My main issue with Gentleman was that Count Rostov was too good at everything. He lacked any real flaws and thus never felt like a real person to me.
Rules of Civility is the story of a year in the life of Katey Kontent, a young working woman in New York in the late 1930s. Katey tells us the story herself, looking back from a vantage point of middle age. She is young, beautiful, a little poor but independent and hopeful. On New Year’s Eve, she and a friend meet a rich and handsome stranger and their three lives become intertwined in some unexpected (and some expected) ways.
This is a very American story. It is a story of how people can re-make themselves, how they can become something different from the generations before them. It’s also a story about what that might cost a person and whether or not the something new and different is better than what came before. There are obvious influences of The Great Gatsby here and Katey is a bit of a Nick Carraway figure as she tells the story of Tinker Grey. However, she is much more intimately involved in the tale than Nick was with Gatsby and this allows Towles to expand the world of the story and introduce other characters, some of whom act as counterpoints to Grey and the other upperclass types that Katey begins to mingle with as the novel and the year progresses. Katey also has her own history that informs the story and how she views those around her.
As in A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles seems to idealize a less than ideal time in history. There’s very little reference to the Depression or how that might affect characters (several of whom are bankers). The rich seem as rich as ever and the poor seem ever on the cusp of changing their lives, if they only want it enough. The story is interesting though and the characters compelling so I didn’t find myself questioning it much as I read. I felt that there was more depth here than in Towles’ second novel and it made me far more sympathetic to and interested in the characters.