Rules of Civility

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I was completely enraptured by Amor Towle's second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. I came away saying this guy has to be Russian. But no, as it turns out.

Well, I came away from this book (his first novel, from 2011) wondering if Towles had access to a time machine that transported him back to 1938 New York City. Because, reader, I found myself wondering at his evocative descriptions of sights, sounds, smells, and (above all) personalities of that time and place.

Okay, he probably doesn't have a time machine. But I don't know how he does it.

Even more daunting, the book is first-person narrated by Katey Kontent, a female. And Towles makes that utterly believable as well.

In the 1960's-set preface, Katey and husband Val are at MOMA for the premiere of an exhibition of hidden-camera pictures taken of NYC subway riders in the 1930s. Katey is gobsmacked when she recognizes one of the subjects: it's Tinker Gray, who…

Well, that would be telling. Let's just say that Katey and Tinker had a complex relationship.

Katey tells her 1938 story with powerful observations and sparkling wit. Her friends and acquaintances, in addition to Tinker, are a colorful and multifaceted bunch. They have secrets and motives that only become apparent as the year rolls on. Surprises abound.

This isn't the kind of book I would have expected to like, but it grabbed me from page one. Towles is that good.

The title refers to the list of 110 maxims that teenage George Washington wrote in his schoolbook. (Number 55: "Eat not in the Streets, nor in the House, out of Season.") They are reproduced in an appendix in this book. It could be, if I had been watching ahead of time, that I could have observed which rules Katey and her retinue obeyed and (maybe equally frequently) disobeyed over the course of the year.

Last Modified 2024-01-14 4:38 AM EDT