I stumbled upon another historical fiction novel recently, much to my delight! I love the way this genre sweeps me up and spits me back out in another era. I can’t help but envy the witty banter, classy socials, and general outlook on life that seems pervasive to earlier decades. Then again, I also can’t help but shake my head at the rampant classism, racism, and sexism so…I won’t wish away too much of the modern world!
Before I review my latest book, let’s talk about how my New Year’s resolution to rent more books than I buy is going. I am happy to report that so far, I have succeeded! As of mid-February, I had borrowed 6 books from the library and bought 2 books from Amazon. But that’s not to say this resolution hasn’t challenged me. Quite the opposite: three times now, I have checked to see if any book on my TBR list are available (a list that encompasses 30+ books) and they have all had a wait list! Ugh! I don’t believe for a second that I have such great taste in books that my list is unreasonable. After all, my TBR list is a nice mix of new releases, classics, and random ones I’ve heard about. But it is frustrating to say the least!
My strategy so far has been to put a hold on 5-6 books at a time, and then if all else fails (aka none are available at the time I’m finished with another book), I download a free book. Many of the classics (1984, for example) are available from Amazon at no cost. So far it’s working! I am able to keep a steady stream of books going even if they aren’t the ones I was most excited about at the time.
I will say one of the things I miss most is being able to go back and check out my highlighted quotes, since my copy of the book goes right back into the cloud after the rental ends. Sigh… Another downside is that I don’t get to choose what book I’m in the “mood” for after I finish another book. I pretty much have to take whatever is available from my hold list and read it while I can. #FirstWorldProblems
Onto the book review!
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles takes place in New York City in the late 1930s. It is at the tail end of the recession but just before WW2. Refined luxury and the desperate slums all have a place in a city like New York at a time like that, as do women who have made something of themselves or are trying to do so. This story centers on one such woman: Kate Kontent, a clerk turned secretary turned writer who is in her mid-20s and finding her way in the world. She is also who I think I might be like if I lived during the same time period. To prove my point:
“You’ve got a lot of books,” he said at last.
“It’s a sickness.”
“Are you seeing anyone for it?”
“I’m afraid it’s untreatable.”
The story of one year in her life features her gal pal, Eve, and a man they meet on a fated night, Theodore “Tinker” Grey. The book takes you through the whole story on a cloud. The social circles are as far-reaching yet tightknit as you can imagine. The social strata make NYC feel small town in the way that people run together (and into each other).
Regular fetes in Gatsby-esque homes out in the country make the social circles more concentric than opposing, and Kate develops a web of acquaintances throughout the year that seem to catch up with her on every block. But she holds her own: she pursues a career, does not depend on anyone – man or woman alike – and she tells the story with a backward glance. Her voice lends an air of wisdom and removal, but also complete and often funny honesty:
“As a quick aside, let me observe that in moments of high emotion – whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment – if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say. This is one of the finer maxims that I’ve discovered in life. And you can have it, since it’s been of no use to me.”
Through winter, spring, summer, and fall, Kate finds out more about herself and those she knows (or thinks she knows) by unraveling one thread at a time in the vast city that is New York. She and Eve share a refrain that the city “turns you inside out,” but it is irresistible just the same.
“For however inhospitable the wind, from this vantage point, Manhattan was simply so impossible, so wonderful, so obviously full of promise – that you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.”
Amor Towles’ writing is highly enjoyable, and if his name sounds familiar, you’re not crazy. His latest book, A Gentleman in Moscow, is a highly acclaimed release from the past year. I haven’t picked it up yet, but after reading this book, I’m intrigued by it and have added it to my TBR list! Maybe I should go ahead and add it to my hold list at the library while I’m at it 😉
PS – This book came recommended to me as a “can’t put down, finish it in one day” kind of book. I had a busy week at the time I was reading this, but even still, I found ways to sneak in a few pages every chance I got. So, I didn’t finish it in a day, but I would still say that it is a quick read and one that keeps you coming back for more!
Rating: 4/5 stars
Stats: 368 pages
Recommended for: Fans of The Great Gatsby or The Swans of Fifth Avenue
Up Next: Right now, it’s 1984. But if a library book comes in before I’m done I’ll skip over to that instead!