Were you paying attention in high school, you might remember that in his novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald was signaling the end of the American dream--at least the American dream that was the province of the then-ruling WASP class.
However, for the protagonist of Rules of Civility, a debut novel by Amor Towles, the American dream is alive, if not particularly well. It's 1938, and for Katherine "Katey" Kontent (stress on the second syllable), Manhattan may not be Nirvana, but it sure beats her natal Brighton Beach. Katey lives in a Barbizon-style ladies' hotel and reads as quickly as her hallmates paint their nails. On a New Year's Eve nightclub outing, she and her pal Eve Ross meet the swank Tinker Grey. The encounter changes both women's lives, and the dynamic of their friendship as well.
The elusive Tinker has taken as his personal code of conduct the "rules of civility" written by George Washington (these are included at the novel's end). Intriguingly, it seems that Towles wants to show that these rules will outlast any of his characters--but the number of small plot points gets in the way sometimes. More interesting is watching Katey metamorphose into Kate, a strong-willed magazine editor whose determination and gimlet eye are a match for every man in the story and almost every woman. In Kate Kontent's game, the old rules have meaning, but the players are the thing. --Bethanne Patrick, editor, Shelf Awareness