Thursday, March 28, 2013

What I'm Reading Now: Rules of Civility By Amor Towles

*Spoiler Alert*

Dear Susan:

The last time we spoke on the phone, you asked if I'd read Rules of Civility. You have been such an enthusiastic supporter of it and so very patient as I worked my way through a whopping back log of reading. I finally finished it and have wanted to talk to you about it, our own little private book club!
But fate, or rather your travels, intervened and we haven't been able to connect. I decided to write this blog post just for you (and anyone who comes across it in their Internet travels, but know I am thinking of you as I write it).

I loved this book. It's the best I've read since Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer last fall. Amor Towles did such a great job creating memorable characters with unique voices, capturing New York City and the era. He not only presented an interesting story, but also asked thought provoking questions about social status that are relevant to today's world. The ending surprised me, which rarely happens. As a writer I was blown away.

My favorite character had to be Wally. Like Tinker, he knew who he really was as a person, but was willing to put that person aside. The difference is that Wally put himself aside for family expectations about who he should be whereas Tinker did it for money. Tinker may have told himself it was for his family, but he knew Hank was an unwilling recipient. Wally also was more open about who he really was and didn't try to cover it up.  In that way, I think Wally is the more noble. I loved how Wally's stutter disappeared when he was on what he perceived as solid ground, talking about guns or out hiking. Towles did such a great job drawing the characters though Katey's point of view. I found it interesting that both Wally and Tinker eventually couldn't continue the charade and the price was suicide: Wally going off to the Spanish Civil War and literally dying, Tinker leaving Ann which resulted in social and financial hari-kari. Again, Wally's the more noble cause.  In thinking back, maybe the fizzling out of the romance between Wally and Kate, even though it resulted in a close friendship, was a foreshadowing of the ending of her relationship with Tinker. Who was your favorite character?

Having worked in New York and visited with my family and grandparents over the years, it was fun to read about the city. Years ago, Michael and I had dinner at 21 Club in the secret vault where they kept the booze during prohibition. I could just imagine the restaurant as the author painted it during the late '30's with the glittering people in fancy dresses and tuxedos. He also took me back down Mott Street, where my grandfather used to take us for dim sum. During the era that the novel was written, it was still part of Little Italy, but I could see it in my head along with The Waldorf-Astoria, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the buzz of people rushing everywhere. It was like taking a little vacation.

I thought Towles asked some interesting questions about social status and power. What's the price? The author made it clear that status came with a steep cost. Tinker prostituted himself, Wally suppressed himself, Eve literally went through a windshield. Each ended up rejecting the price in the end: Wally left for war, Tinker left Ann, and Eve just left. I think Eve summed it up best "I'd rather be any where than under some one's thumb." They were all under some one's thumb in one way or another and decided that the cost was too high, so they stopped paying.

Being a writer, I'm sensitive to subtle changes in language and word choice, so I like to think I pick a lot up as I read. That said, Tinker's relationship with Ann completely surprised me, a rare occurrence. Although when it was revealed, a lot of pieces fell into place. Tinker's reaction to her presence at 21 Club, the question of where Tinker was getting his money (I picked up he wasn't from wealth in the beginning). I appreciate that once it was revealed, those pieces did fall into place, otherwise it would have felt like the author made it up to write his way out of a corner. Did you see it coming?

Reading books this good can be a little intimidating for me: Will I ever be this good? I ask myself. I can only hope that when my own novel is finished, it will be as well written as this one. I found inspiration in the Q&A on the author's website. He's close in age to me and this is his first novel, so I don't feel so weird starting a new thing now. It also had practical advice that I'll be taking: keep the point of view simple, imagine as much as possible before you start writing, then give yourself a deadline. So I'll take it to heart and do some planning then jump back into the writing. All in all, though it's inspirational to know that someone can write such a great book. I truly found it an entertaining experience.

I'm looking forward to talking to you about Rules of Civility when you've settled back down at home.
Travel safe.

Love,
Jeanne