The story covers a single year–1938–in New York City. It’s told through the point of view of a young woman–Katey Kontent (pronounced con-TENT, not CON-tent) who is trying to find her way regarding career, friends, and relationships.
On New Year’s Eve, Katey and her best friend are celebrating (on a shoestring) in a jazz club when Tinker Grey walks in. Tinker is obviously wealthy, obviously cultured, and apparently alone. What ensues is a year of parties, dinners, mixing and matching relationships, and small dramas.
I’m actually glad I read these out of publication order. As much as I enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow, I was left cold by Rules of Civility, and I wonder if I would have read the second novel had I started with the first.
There were several areas that concerned me about Towles’s debut. First, it’s hard for me to care deeply about this group of characters. They’re all self-absorbed, vacuous people that obsess about things that simply don’t matter to anyone but themselves.
Second and third are probably two aspects of the same issue. I am not all that persuaded by the authenticity of Katey’s voice, and simultaneously I think Towles is working too hard to be clever with his prose. For me it often sounded artificial and precious.
It’s not that I disliked the novel. But Towles’s second novel is so strong that it’s a hard comparison. I’m still looking forward to his next one with anticipation, however.