Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Rules of Civility review

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Amor Towles' Rules of Civility. Photo / Supplied
Amor Towles' Rules of Civility. Photo / Supplied

In an uncharacteristic fit of efficiency, I started reading my September feature book, Rules of Civility, on the same day I finished my August novel, There But For There.

It can be jarring to switch so suddenly between two very different writing styles. Initially, I wondered if Amor Towles' debut Rules of Civility wouldn't compare to Ali Smith's quirky and deliciously written There But For The.

Towles' writing was simpler and more prosaic, which at first made it appear less sophisticated.

But once I'd become accustomed to his sparer writing style I was hooked. The novel follows a year in the life of sharp 25-year-old New Yorker Katey Kontent, book-ended and punctuated by her relationship with debonair socialite Tinker Grey.

That year is 1938, and one of the novel's great strengths is its recreation of the era. New York becomes as real a character as Katey and Tinker, bursting with style and promise.

It's a powerful figure, able to hoist its inhabitants to the heights of society or dump them on the bread line. Katey's story is inextricably entwined with its richly detailed setting and it's easy to forget that this book was written in the 21st century and not in the 1930s.

To prove the point I've opened the book at a random page. In it Katey describes an outing with her wealthy friend Wallace: "Wallace's hunt club was surprisingly run-down in appearance. Outside there was a low portico and slim white pillars that made it look like a sorry excuse for a Southern mansion. Inside, the pine floors were uneven, the rugs frayed, and the Aububon prints slightly askew, as if victims of a distant earthquake.

But like his moth-eaten sweater, the worn aspect of the club seemed to put Wallace at ease."

To me the novel perfectly captures the promise and the freedom, the hope and the heartache, and the loneliness and the doubt of a year in the life of a single 20-something living in a big city. With no-one to answer to or be responsible for, Katey is free to take risks and follow paths to unknown destinations.

There's a randomness to the narrative that echoes real life. Katey goes on excursions that appear tangential to the plot, but ring true to the haphazard journey that any of us goes through in a year, especially in our 20s. There are many convenient coincidences and chance meetings that can make her journey feel staged - but this was Towles' intent.

"One of the central themes in the book is how chance meetings and offhand decisions in one's 20s can define one's life for decades to come," he has said. "I think there is something universal about this dynamic; but it was certainly my experience."

I'm sure we could all name such moments. Can you? Mine was when I was lazily searching for a flat one day when I was 24. Faced with column after column of small print in the Herald, I drew a ring around an ad for a room in Grey Lynn. Inside that white villa I met a treasured friend whose circle of acquaintances became integral to my experience of life through the rest of my 20s.

A few years later I met my husband, in London, through another series of chance meetings and offhand decisions.

When my fellow blogger Christine and I started up Fiction Addiction in May, we wrote about the power of a good book to transport you to another world. Rules of Civility is one of these. On finishing it I felt as if I hadn't merely closed a book but returned from a journey - to 1930s New York.

Last month I declared There But For The to be the best book of my Fiction Addiction choices this year. Today I trump that, and crown Rules of Civility the title holder.

I know it's a bit early to say this, but put Rules of Civility on your Christmas list and savour it over New Year, which is when Katey's story begins and ends. It would make a perfect summer read - engrossing, scandalous, glamorous and fun, but rounded out by depth and poignancy.

Next week marks a new month, and thus a new book for me - Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, which is tipped to win the Man Booker Prize in a couple of weeks (so it probably won't!)

Christine will be reading former Booker winner Michael Ondaatje's new novel The Cat's Table. Feel free to join us and let us know your thoughts as we blog throughout October.

To enter the draw to win a copy of both books, click here and tell us whether competitions like the Man Booker Prize influence your reading choices, and why/why not.

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