Friday, October 28, 2011
Stylish Period Piece
A few weeks ago I promised to review "Rules of Civility." I don't know about you but I always seem to have three books going at the same time. Along with "Rules" I have been reading "Of Human Bondage" by W. Somerset Maugham and have just started "Shakespeare and Company" by Sylvia Beach. I recently finished "Rules of Civility"and found it to be a charming and irresistible read, with real substance and serious issues under the lovely veneer.
It's 1966 and our heroine Katy Kontent is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with her husband viewing a photography exhibition. In it she sees an image of a man she knew, Tinker Grey. It sparks a flashback to the fateful night in 1937 when she met the man who changed her life and the book tells the story of what happened that year as well as the next thirty.
The novel has the satisfying feel of a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald. With its echoes of "The Great Gatsby" as well as "Breakfast at Tiffany's, this book takes us to familiar and comfortable territory, a place where Holly Golightly might have been living and re-inventing herself. We are in New York in the 1930's and the heroine Katey Kontent is a working girl with big dreams who lives in a Greenwich Village boarding house with her roommate Eve Ross. One night at a jazz club they meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with Ivy league written all over him who changes both their lives. The two girls quickly enter his glittering social world and their lives become entwined with surprising results.
Although it is obvious that the real connection is between Tinker and our heroine Katey, Eve is the one with whom he forms a romantic relationship. This is the result of a tragic occurrence later in the book for which he feels responsible. Katey continues to have deep feelings for him and Eve, and never completely loses touch with either of them. But as the years go by she forms relationships with other men and ascends the corporate ladder in what is clearly a man's world. She also quickly and easily enters the upper echelons of New York society that Tinker introduces her to and her social and professional ascent has all the elements of an American fairy tale.
As a narrator, Katey Kontent is one of the best, with an honest and appealing voice. She is witty, quick-tongued, self-deprecating, descriptive, and fun. Hers is the voice of a fighter and a survivor. She not only survives but triumphs in her new environment because of her indomitable and resilient spirit. She learns some hard lessons about the reality behind the sparkling facade of Tinker Grey and his "godmother" Anne Grandyn.
The writing is quite beautiful and full of hard-earned truths about the world. Because the story is told in such a sparkling and delightful way and is just plain fun to read with its echoes of Fitzgerald and Capote, we almost are taken aback by the harsh truths about human nature that the heroine observes throughout. Many of these lines capture the poignancy and beauty of the world, and many of them express the disappointing reality she discovers about human nature. We watch as her idealism is dashed against a growing cynicism as she discovers that people she idealized are fakes and frauds. And yet what keeps us engaged is her general nature which is resilient and hopeful. The beauty in life that she find outweighs the disappointments and keeps her going. She absorbs the promise of New York and is able to take advantages of the opportunities that present themselves. This is one smart cookie and I found myself cheering her on.
As she muses about life and choices near the end of the book she thinks,
"Life doesn't have to provide you any options at all. It can easily define your course from the outset and keep you in check through all manner of rough and subtle mechanics. To have even one year when you're presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course -- that's by the grace of God alone. And it shouldn't come without a price.
I... love my job, and my New York. I have no doubt that they were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss."
I could see this book easily being made into a film, maybe in the genre of the classic screwball comedies with Gershwin music playing in the background. It reminded me of a 40's romantic comedy, with quick and witty repartee, jazz club scenes, lots of youthful hijinks, and romantic mischief. It also astonished me with with its many beautifully expressed truths about human nature and the course of a life well-lived.