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426 of 453 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Heart and Soul, New York, July 26, 2011
This review is from: Rules of Civility: A Novel (Hardcover)
If a novel could win an award for best cinematography, this would take home the gold. Amor Towles's sophisticated retro-era novel of manners captures Manhattan 1938 with lucid clarity and a silvery focus on the gin and the jazz, the nightclubs and the streets, the pursuit of sensuality, and the arc of the self-made woman.

The novel's preface opens in 1966, with a happily married couple attending a Walker Evans photography exhibition. An unlikely chance encounter stuns the woman, Katey--a picture of a man staring across a canyon of three decades, a photograph of an old friend. Thus begins the flashback story of Katey's roaring twenties in the glittering 30's.

Katey Kontent (Katya) is the moral center of the story, an unapologetic working girl--more a bluestocking than a blue blood-- born in Brighton Beach of Russian immigrant parents. She's an ambitious and determined statuesque beauty à la Tierney or Bacall who seeks success in the publishing industry. She works as hard by day as she plays at night. Her best friend, Eve (Evelyn) Ross, is a Midwest-born Ginger Rogers /Garbo character mix, with jazz cat spirit and a fearless, cryptic glamor. She refuses daddy's money and embraces her free spirit:

"I'm willing to be under anything...as long as it isn't somebody's thumb."

Katey and Eve flirt with shameless savoir-faire, and are quick with the clever repartees. They will kiss a man once that they'll never kiss twice, and glide with effortless élan among all the social classes of New York. Moreover, they can make a few dollars stretch through many a martini, charming gratis drinks from fashionable men. With their nerve and gaiety, the two would be equally savvy at Vanity Fair or the Algonquin Round Table, or in a seedy bar on the Lower East Side.

Eve and Katey meet the sphinx-like Tinker Grey on New Year's Eve, 1937, at the Hotspot, a jazz bar in Greenwich Village. Tinker's métier is Gatsby-esque--an inscrutable, ruggedly handsome man in cashmere, a mysterious lone figure with an enigmatic mystique. The three become fast friends, but as with many triangulating relationships, a hairline rivalry sets in. Then a cataclysmic tragedy shatters the cool grace of their bond, and their solidarity is ruptured.

Towles is spectacular at description and atmosphere, keeping a keen camera's eye on the city with a polished pedigree of writing that is rare in a debut novel. A smoky haze envelopes the streets and clubs and buildings, which the reader can't help surveying in all the rich colors of vintage black and white. The writing is dense, yet fluid and ambient, rich as a contralto, and cool as a saxophone. Tendrils of Edith Wharton flow through, as well as Fitzgerald, and echoes of Capote's Holly Golightly.

At times, the lush descriptions threaten to eclipse the story, and the characters recede. This is a book of manners, so the action resides in the conflict between individual ambitions and desires and the acceptable social codes of behavior between classes. However, the middle section stagnates, as one character hugs most of the narrative in repetitive days and nights, the psychological complexities dimming. It loses some steam as the taut thrill of the first half wanes, but an understated closure recharges it again.

Overall, the beauty of the novel endures, and the sensuality of the prose lingers. The reader is also edified on the origin of the title, and the author folds it in neatly to the story. The characters are crisp and contoured, delightful and satisfying, even if one left the stage a bit too soon. This is one male writer who finesses his female characters with impressive agility and assurance.
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Tracked by 6 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 52 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 26, 2011 5:15:29 AM PDT
Fascinating review, Bug! As I was reading and lapping up your delicious descriptions, I was thinking of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories (Modern Library) and Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly...and voila, there they are acknowledged in your keen observation! I love your award for best cinematography too! As always, splendid reviewing! Evie

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2011 10:29:37 AM PDT
Evie--thank you. You would love that there is a character named Evelyn, too. She is very plucky. I am glad I read this book--it is making me want to watch old movies again, especially the ones with jazz bars/night clubs/Manhattan. Mmm...

Posted on Jul 26, 2011 1:34:52 PM PDT
Malfoyfan says:
Excellent review.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2011 4:37:14 PM PDT
Thank you, Malfoyfan!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2011 11:36:08 PM PDT
Bonnie Brody says:
Bug, Excellent review. As Bill says, your reviews are the pinnacle that he strives towards. I'm swamped in books tbr, however, and don't know when or if I can get to this one. Bonnie

Posted on Jul 27, 2011 12:16:51 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Oct 8, 2012 6:32:31 PM PDT]

Posted on Jul 27, 2011 1:45:39 PM PDT
Thank you, Jill and Bonnie. You are so kind with your compliments!

There are people that you know are born with a superb talent for prose. Amor Towles is one of them. It rolls off like buttah.

Bug

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 27, 2011 7:08:21 PM PDT
Chai on Life says:
switterbug says:
There are people that you know are born with a superb talent for prose. Amor Towles is one of them. It rolls off like buttah.

You, my dear, were definately born with that talent. Please write a book. Your reviews are delightful. It leaves one wanting more and I mourned the fact it was over.

Thank you for that most enjoyable interlude.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 27, 2011 8:44:02 PM PDT
Thank you, Chai! I appreciate that kind of encouragement. Puts a smile on my face.

Bug

Posted on Jul 30, 2011 1:02:02 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 30, 2011 1:02:41 PM PDT
How on earth do you get so many votes in such a short time, and on a book I have never even heard of? Then I read your review, and my question answers itself. Roger.
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