Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How Did the Book Club Go? Discussing Amor Towles's "Rules of Civility."

It is almost a cliché to write about novels set in New York. Whereas every other American metropolis-set novel’s publication is punctuated with hints of regionalism (and yes, I mean Chicago and San Francisco and Boston too), there is something about New York that becomes a stand-in for America, even if it is not unlike any place else in the United States at all.

So I was worried as I picked Rules of Civility as our in-store book club selection for November, worried that it would be too derivative of other novels and period films. Heck, it’s clearly inspired a bit by The Great Gatsby, and how could you measure up to that? As Liesl Schillinger wrote in the New York Times Book Review, you don’t have to. Read the rest here.

The story is of a young woman from Brooklyn, Katya Kontent, which I assume is adjusted from a more Russian-sounding name, who meets a wealthy young woman from Indiana, Evelyn Ross, slumming it in New York. Well, slumming it in that she is not taking her father’s money and that she’s living in a rooming house. A chance encounter at a jazz club leads to both Katie and Eve falling in with one Tinker Grey and his entrée to a higher stratum of society.

For some reason, I knew the story had comic elements, but for some reason, I thought it would be more of a satire. I pictured Kate using her wiles to leave her working class origins and climb the rungs of society. But though that what happens (the story is looking back from the 1960s to the 1930s, with Katie well-heeled in middle age), what I love about the story is that it’s a little more complicated than that. And in the end, I was one of the few folks in our book discussion that even saw the book as a comedy.

All the major characters, from Tinker the banker, to Bitsy the socialite, to Anne, the older confidante Kate’s other admirers, Wallace and Dicky, skirt stereotypes of the rich as they embrace them. And while Kate has left her family behind (strange how they inhabit share a single scene in the novel, looking on like ghosts) and seems a bit disdainful of the secretarial pool, but seems to take to the working class artists like Tinker’s WPA-employed brother and the writers of Gotham, the magazine where starts her career after leaving the cul de sac position at a law school.

Do I dare reread The Great Gatsby or do I rely on our resident expert at the book club for advice? Several folks have acknowledged Edith Wharton as another of Towles's influences. And do I keep referencing the moving version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or do I finally break down and read Truman Capote’s novel? That’s the problem with discussing books—without a strong basis in classic fiction, you are left without reference points. I suspect that Towles has watched a good number of New York set films from the 1930s and beyond. I was also reminded of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, thinking about the working class kid who smoothly falls in with the New York debutantes.

So I liked it (and note that the international rights community liked it, as there sure are a lot of international editions for a first novel), but what did the book club think?

For the most part, they were quite positive. A lot of folks liked the writing, though one attendee thought several of the stylistic devices were a little clunky. I'm not sure whether I thought the novel really needed to incorporate Washington's "Rules of Civility" into the story. And there was some disagreement over whether Anne Grandin, Tinker's "godmother", was a realistic character. And of course we had to discuss whether a man can successfully take on the voice of a woman. Note that we rarely have this discussion in the other direction. And one attendee said it best when, after having this subject come up several times in meetings, she noted "the clear indication that Rules of Civility was written by a man is that Katey Kontent is not obsessed with her relationship with her late mother."

For the most part, the group thought the book was about finding your identity and making the decisions, in life that, for better or worse, you wind up sticking with. I seemed to be much more into the perceived but unreal fluidity of the classes, the facades, and the artificiality and posing of the characters, appropriating tropes not just from classic books, but also films. To me, there was this continuing theme of life becoming art, with every trope except Katey sitting down at the end to write the novel, Rules of Civility, at the end. But honestly, haven't we seen enough of that lately?

Next up, here are our next two discussions:

Monday, December 3, 7 pm: When She Woke, by Hilary Jordan. This #1 Indie Next pick is said to be a cross between The Handmaid's Tale and The Scarlet Letter. We had several great reads from Boswellians. And Jordan is the first author to be discussed twice by our in-store lit group, as Mudbound was one of our first discussions. Being that only one person showed up to that one, it almost doesn't count.

Monday, January 6, 7 pm: The Barbarian Nurseries, by Héctor Tobar. Los Angeles novels don't get their due, so we are switching coasts to this social issue novel (a la Tom Wolfe) that won the California book award and had several booksellers (and at least one trustworthy rep) waxing enthusiastically.

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