Daily Archives: September 7, 2011

Book Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Title: Rules of Civility
Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 978-0670022694
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This book came out of nowhere and totally wowed me. I’ve never heard of Amor Towles, but on this showing I think we’ll all be hearing a lot more about him.

Clever, witty and very well written, this is the tale of a year in the life of Katey Kontent, an ambitious, intelligent young New Yorker. The year in question is 1938, when the Depression is beginning to lift and war has not yet cast a shadow. Life is full of possibilities and Katey and her friend Eve are determined to live it to the full. A chance encounter with handsome, rich and single Tinker Grey is destined to change all their lives in the course of the year and set them on the eventual paths they will follow into the future.

The American Dream is encapsulated in this novel, in all its naked ambition and superficiality. To be rich, to be beautiful, to be successful – these are the things that are important. And does it matter how these things are achieved? Manhattan seems to think not, and Katey and her friends want to live the dream. Social climbing is everything and has never been more frothy or more fun – the jazz clubs, the martini drinking, the partying.

I’m sure it’s been mentioned by other reviewers, but the Great Gatsby comparison is so obvious that I can’t ignore it. Tinker is a mysterious character in the Jay Gatsby mould, appearing seldom in the text, but casting a shadow over Katey and hence the novel, for the duration of the text. That I can mention Great Gatsby and genuinely not think that The Rules of Civility should feel shy in such exalted company is a testament to the quality of Towles novel.

I find it hard to believe that this is a debut book, as the writing is so self assured, wonderful, atmospheric and well plotted. This is not light and fluffy chick lit. Nothing could be further from that – this is a great novel and must easily be one of the best books about New York that I have read, for the city is easily amongst the characters that populate this novel.

It is not a book that you read and forget or discard. It has a pride of place on my shelf, waiting for other books by this author, who is certainly one to watch. However, for now, just enjoy this and be thankful that it was written. This is a love letter to the Big Apple of the Jazz era. It bursts from the pages, as large a character as any of the humans in the book and I defy any reader to not be as seduced by the place as Katey is.

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Rules of Civility: A Novel

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Book Review: The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

Title: The Borrower
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 978-0670022816
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

“I might be the villain of this story. Even now, it’s hard to tell.” So begins Rebecca Makkai’s enchanting debut novel ‘The Borrower’ which tells the story of Lucy Hull, a small-town librarian who inadvertently ‘borrows’ a child and takes him on a road trip which turns into a journey of discovery for them both.

And yes it is hard to tell whether Lucy is the villain or hero of this story. The child in question, Ian, is an alarming precocious, engagingly nerdy boy who hails from a right-wing religious family and finds solace amongst the stories found in the library (just not the ones his mother allows him to read). His parents are sending him to classes run by the sinister ‘Pastor Bob’, a dodgy evangelist who claims to be able to ‘cure’ children with homosexual tendencies, so when Lucy discovers that Ian has been camping out (no pun intended) in the library one night, she allows herself to be persuaded to take him to his grandmother’s house. However, it soon becomes obvious that Ian is sending her on a wild goose chase.

There are times when you want to shake Lucy but undoubtedly her heart is in the right place. Like any good liberal bankrolled by Daddy (a cruel way of putting it but nevertheless true), she is shocked to the core by the thought of her studious, unconventional and emotionally manipulative young charge being sent to classes to reprogramme his sexual orientation. But is she any better – so certain of the moral high ground that she’s prepared to usurp his parents as the controller of his life?

Makkai fills the book with all sorts of literary references, from Lolita and Crime & Punishment, to Goodnight Moon and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Fans of children’s literature will be particularly delighted by the little gifts that Makkai includes throughout her prose. (My favorite: the nod to the Choose Your Own Adventure books – loved it!)

This book is very funny, as well as thought-provoking. It certainly gives conservatives a tough time but it doesn’t let liberals off lightly, either. Lucy winds up doing a lot of soul-searching as she realises that her own ideological position also has its nasty side, and that we all tell stories about our past in order to make excuses for our moral blind spots. Tolerance goes both ways, and regrettably includes acknowledging the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit. The extremely unrealiable narrative of Lucy’s own Russian emigree father is an interesting subplot in its own right and an excellent foil to the primary story. To say this very entertaining novel is a commentry on the culture wars that are presently tearing America apart makes it sound a lot heavier and worthier than it really is. It’s the mark of a skilled writer when they can introduce such complex and serious themes with a light touch and keep you reading and caring about the characters throughout.

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The Borrower: A Novel