As soon as I started reading "Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles, the voice of the heroine, Katey Kontent, morphed into the voice of a young Katharine Hepburn for me.
That's not because the character has the privileged upbringing of our Connecticut icon, but because the 1938 setting and dialogue seem perfectly suited to one of those comedies in which Hepburn played a bookish, too-smart-for-her-own-good spitfire.
"Hey Sis!" says Katey's friend Eve, who has just called the law firm where Katey is a secretary.
- "Your hair better be on fire, friend. I've got a deposition due in an hour."
"How's it coming?"
- "I'm three misdirections and a whopper behind."
The novel is the story of a year in Katey's life as 1937 rolls into 1938. She's a young single woman with secret ambitions living in New York and running with a posh crowd seemingly above the belt-tightening of the Great Depression.
The smartest decision Towles makes as an author is to preface the story with a short description of an older couple walking through a museum. The woman sees two striking photographs of a young man — one in which he's scruffy and looks like a day laborer, and another in which he's beautifully dressed and groomed.
The museum-goer — our heroine Katey in her later years — tells her husband that she once knew the man in the photographs. The husband assumes the man picked himself up and made a success, but Katey tells him he's reading the photographs out of order: the man lost everything.
Subsequently, the reader learns what really happened between Katey and the man in the photographs, Tinker, about thirty years before. The background knowledge that Tinker will lose his fortune looms over everything and keeps the tension in the story.
Some will love the dialgue, with its use of "gadzooks" and "fab-dabulous" and everyone calling the women in New York "sister." Some, including me, may think it's a bit over the top but enjoyable anyway.
I also found it fascinating to know that the author is a principal at a New York investment firm and that this is his first novel, which was published when he was 46. He worked for seven years on another novel before finding Katey's voice and penning "Rules of Civility."
As Towles' own characters might say: Zowie. One great story deserves another.