At my age I would like to think I know better, but alas I rather shame-facedly admit to still being someone that judges a book by its cover. It’s for this reason that I approached Rules of Civility by Amor Towles with disdain, the graphics on the cover are actually really very clever, even pretty but it’s the comments left by the critics that were off putting. On reading what the more knowledgeable journalists had to say on the book I was convinced it was going to be a good chick-lit novel with nothing much to offer. If it hadn’t been chosen by the reading group which I joined just after Christmas I would probably have never touched it with a barge pole, but given that I’ve only made one appearance at the reading group and I’d already bought the book I felt I better skim my way through it.
Given my attitude you can surely imagine my glee at finding myself, no further in than the preface, in an exhibition of Walker Evans photography. For those with whom this name rings no bells, Walker Evans is one of America’s great photographers capturing the Great Depression through his photographs with an honesty and poignancy unlike any others. The scene taking place in the Walker Evans exhibition hinted that the book might contain a little more depth than just silk stockings, furs and hip flasks as promised by the critics.
The Rules of Civility charmed me, and filled me with a comforting nostalgia for a time in which I never had the joy of living. Towles writes beautifully, his sentences are simple yet resonant, his dialogue at times rings like those from a classic American gangster movie and I found myself wishing that I was Eve or Katey, who have wit rolling off their tongues with more ease than water flowing through a river bed. I expected Rules of Civility to be something of a cup-cake of a book; light, fluffy, lots of glitter and pretty colours but over all too sickly sweet, I was very wrong. Towles has crafted a gorgeously rich fruit cake of a book, made with only the finest fruit, full of flavour and intricacy, heavily doused in alcohol from cocktails and with the odd plump cherry of wisdom to give it a little more depth. Personally I’ve always been more of a fruit cake kind of gal (some friends would probably argue that I am a fruit cake)! Towles’s novel hit all the right spots on my palate.
I was so warmed when Katey shares her love of literature with us, her passion for Dickens and Thoreau’s Walden. I then began to realise that maybe I felt so much warmth and nostalgia on reading this book because Katey reminded me a little bit of myself. Using her favourite books as crutches to get her through life, to lighten a gloomy day, is something I do too. The fun she had out with Eve drinking and meeting people; I too have had wonderful evenings like those with my good friends in my early twenties in London town. Maybe it was the familiarity, and yet the manner in which the familiar was a touch more glamorous than it had really ever been for me, which drew the book close to my heart. I thought any woman reading the novel would want to sample some of the glamour and glitz from that era and would find a place in their heart for Katey Kontent, however my reading group proved me wrong.
Rather amusingly my views on the book weren’t shared by all at the reading group, some of them saw only the frivolous, glamorous facet of the novel which displeased them. However I think its depth and beauty are a lot more subtle and could so easily be missed. Katey Kontent is a guarded narrator and not always willing to disclose exactly what she feels about a certain situation, but through time her actions reveal the true depth of her emotions and I loved the delicacy Towles used in revealing more about our narrator.
I’m grateful that the first impression gleaned from my judgement of the cover didn’t go on to sully the pleasure I reaped in reading this book. Personally I couldn’t think of a better example of why a book must not be judged by its cover. I would like to think my lesson has been well and truly learnt, at long last.
I’m also grateful to Towles for expanding my knowledge of that era in American history and introducing me to new authors and pieces of writing. I’m currently waiting for my copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau to arrive and hope it will encourage a stream of wit to flow from my tongue, just like Katey Kontent.