Hello, Bookies! Ready to jump into Rules of Civility and all of the excitement that comes along with it? Here we go…
When I began reading the preface, I was surprised, yet delighted, to learn that the introduction to Rules of Civility took place not in 1930s New York City as I expected but in a much later, more familiar-to-me space: an art opening in 1966 (familiar to me via frequent Mad Men viewing and a slight obsession with Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, anyway). I appreciated the device; setting up the preface this way let me know that our narrator (who we will come to know as Katey Kontent) would be looking back at 1938 with us, sharing her thoughts and feelings about what happened then as she remembered it, and not relating the action to us readers as it happened to her. What are your thoughts about the set-up in the preface in relation to the story to come?
Suddenly, it’s New Year’s Eve, and we’re just about to ring in 1938. We meet Katey and her boarding-house roommate, Eve: two vivacious young women with the hope of stretching $3 into a night to remember. In a rather morose jazz club they befriend Tinker Grey, another energetic young person who is much like the girls in his sense of humor and adventure, but with one major defining characteristic: Tinker’s carriage, from his engraved lighter to the cashmere coat swung casually over his arm, immediately tells Katey (raised in Brooklyn, daughter of a Russian immigrant) and Eve (from midwestern privilege, but making a go of it on her own in the city) that he belongs to a social strata many miles from their own. Despite these differences, the three become fast friends. It was striking to me that Katey and Eve, two girls out alone together in New York City, would be so, well, brazen, inviting a strange man to their table and frolicking with him all over town. For some reason, I was under the impression that women in this era—of all ages—were more demure, less straightforward, and most definitely not nearly as independent as Katey and Eve. Katey makes reference to their “virginal” boarding-house counterparts, but I was left wondering if our girls were the exception to the rules of women’s behavior of the day. In any case, I immediately felt a kinship with Katey, and recognized myself and my friends—all of us independent, straightforward young women—in the portrayal of the relationship between our narrator and Eve. Their banter is quick, clever, and not unlike conversations my friends and I might have today, nearly 75 years later. Were you surprised by Katey and Eve’s independence and humor?
Over the next chapters, we get a glimpse into Katey’s world: the life of a working girl with a soundtrack of typewriter keystrokes from the secretarial pool where she works, her only reprieve a few peaceful moments ducking into empty churches or diner booths alone. Soon however, her nights are filled with lively jaunts around town with Tinker—and Eve. To me, in the early chapters of the book, Tinker seemed to pay special attention to Katey, asking her questions about herself and wanting to know her feelings about a number of things, while regarding Eve as something of an amusement. I wondered how long the threesome would last before jealousy reared its always-ugly head. It turned out that it wouldn’t—in Chapter 4, a chance incident completely changes the trajectory of their friendship. Had the “chance incident” not occurred, what course do you think the friendship between Tinker, Katey, and Eve would have taken?
Despite receiving an intriguing kiss from Tinker at the end of Chapter 5, Katey becomes more or less estranged from Tinker and Eve, and eventually, while the couple is on her mind, they come to inhabit a world of charming dinner parties, impromptu trips to exotic and exciting locales, and sparkling possessions, completely separate from Katey’s reality of socializing with the other secretaries and reading Charles Dickens alone on a Friday night. When Katey does accept the occasional invite into Tinker and Eve’s social life, she feels disconnected yet holds her own in the crowd. Tinker, to me, still treated her with much tenderness, despite his relationship with Eve. Why do you think Tinker kissed Katey? What might his intentions have been?
Nearing the end of our first section, I started to realize the theme of Rules of Civility may not be social ambition, like I had thought before I began reading, as much as it is friendship—how friendships begin, what holds them together, and how we deal with it when they fall apart. All three of our main characters are smartly written. I can sense Katey’s depth—she can be negative and mean, as well as hopeful and excited, despite being tired out by all that surrounds her—and her personality is in complete juxtaposition to the way the author presents Eve. Eve is well-written not because we get to know her intimately, but for precisely the opposite reason: To me, she has a glossy surface; she’s bratty, shallow, accustomed to getting her way—and not accustomed to suffering. Tinker, while portrayed with a bit more depth due to our narrator’s not-so-secrets feelings for him, also strikes me as superficial. Or perhaps it is that Katey doesn’t really know Tinker and Eve very well at all? Despite all that happens (and doesn’t happen) between Katey, Eve, and Tinker, Katey is still loyal to both of her friends, especially Eve, and Eve to her. Why do you think the girls are loyal to each other? What do you think their friendship is based on and how do they keep it from falling apart?
I hope you are enjoying the book as much as I am…we have much to discuss! Let me know what you think about what’s happened in Rules of Civility so far; I am looking forward to hearing your impressions and answering your questions, not to mention excited to find out what’s in store for Katey!
Until next time.