I have one to proselytize for, friends. Rules of Civility will certainly make the list of the greatest books I discovered in 2012.
The book opens with the story’s narrator, Katey, and her husband Val at an art opening in 1966. A few pages set the scene and the style of this book – and oh, the style! – before we’re whisked back into Katey’s reminiscences, beginning just a few hours before the new year of 1938 will be rung in. She and her best-friend-and-roommate, Eve, are out on the town, and they meet a man who buys them champagne for the toast at midnight. And then we follow Katey through the year.
Katey’s life changes a great deal in 1938, in all its aspects: career, home life, relationships, love, aspirations, her understanding of herself and of her world. I don’t want to mention any more of the plot, because I found such joy in discovering its twists myself, and you should too.
This book has many strengths. Its story is interesting: a single year, 1938, in the life of an ambitious young woman in New York City. And there are such surprises that I dropped my chin on my chest more than once. But the plot alone would not have made the book what it is. The characters are strong as well: Katey is pretty fabulous, as are a number of others. But neither is this the shining facet that draws the eye. I think the real victory is in the writing. You may have noticed (and I hope you’ve forgiven me) that I used not one but three teasers to whet your interest (here and here). It’s very evocative: I could see, hear, smell the New York City described; and further, I felt all the emotions Towles wrote. Driving to and from work and listening to this story (and Rebecca Lowman’s masterful, perfect narration), I arrived at my destination confident and optimistic, hopeful for the future, downcast, flabbergasted, or whatever that chapter called for. It was one of those very rare books that engaged me completely, made me lie awake at night worrying, wishing for certain events to transpire, caring deeply about fictional characters. It was amazing. And of course I have no great understanding of 1938 New York City; but Towles (and Lowman) have me utterly convinced that it sounded and looked and smelled and tasted exactly as described here.
And while I’m praising the writing, the style with which Katey’s voice comes alive, I must praise the reading of this audio version as well. Lowman has a frank, languid tone that feels precisely right for Katey; I love that she slows down. Her pacing is sometimes indolent and sometimes despairing, but it always adds to the sense of nostalgia in the beautiful piece of art that is Rules of Civility.
Oh, and it’s worth adding too that Katey is a reader, and literary references abound, which enriches the overall effect considerably for me and perhaps for you too.
Without having given away much plot, then, I assure you that the setting, the sense of style, and the writing on display in Rules of Civility are all remarkable. This will definitely be one of the best books I read this year, and the audio version is superb. Run out and get a copy.