Tea at the Plaza, ice-skating in Central Park, the Met, having cocktails high in the sky; these are just a few of my favorite things about growing up in Manhattan. Then there’s my fantasy version of New York from all the old 1930s movies where beautiful women in flowing silk gowns and handsome men attired in tuxedos led fabulous lives in Penthouse apartments overlooking the Park. I sigh as they sashay from one glamorous place to another or, on a lark, find the local hidden bohemian jazz club where they dance and drink the night away.
It does make me wonder if any of these people worked and, if they did, how they functioned on all that alcohol? Look at how Nick Charles always solved the murder in "The Thin Man" series. And did you notice how they all still looked fabulous after consuming so much? Just wondering…
Still, I've always loved the Hollywood fantasy of the more whimsical aspects of Manhattan. Since I no longer live there and am not required to deal with the more mundane aspects of the city, I’ll take the fantasy. Maybe that’s why I was attracted to Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, a story of how the glittering life in 1938 New York changed the lives of a circle of friends.
The tale is revealed by Katey Kontent. She is a smart, sharp gal in her mid-twenties who lives in a women’s boarding house in lower Manhattan and rooms with the beautiful Eve, a well-off party girl from the Midwest. It is New Year’s Eve, 1937, and the girls meet Tinker Grey, the good looking, well-to-do, well educated son of old money who works for a bank on Wall Street and three hit it off.
Soon after, a car accident throws everyone into a spin and there begins the story of 1938.
A few other interesting characters enhance the story. There’s Widow Anne Grandyn, an old friend of Tinker’s mother and a kind of godmother to him who Katey runs into at key moments throughout the year. You just know there is more to her than meets the eye. Then there is Wallace, a quiet, somewhat shy, wealthy man, who is Tinker’s old schoolmate. He is a gentle sort who balances some of the brashness of the other characters.
We romp through 1938 New York with Katey while she runs with both the high society crowd and the bohemians. Somehow, Katey still pursues her career dreams. Though she takes some big chances, she is able to use her quick wit to get ahead. But not without learning some of life’s more challenging lessons.
This story of character and class comes complete with hidden agendas and duplicity. And then there's Tinker Grey. Just how many playboys do you know who read Thoreau?
Still, I enjoyed it immensely. New York sparkled and there was enough of the fairy tale for me to overlook the faded allure.
So, I’ll take 1930’s Manhattan for $1000, Alex…