Sadly, we’ve come to the end of our whirlwind adventure through 1930s New York via Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. But before we park our Bentley in the garage, there’s quite a bit to talk about! While the action throughout the book kept me riveted, the last 10 chapters were full of so many twisty turns and shocking surprises that my fellow commuters must have thought me pretty batty when I involuntarily let out more than one audible gasp as I read on the subway.
As we begin Chapter 18, we find Katey at the Wolcotts’ mansion in the Adirondacks, where Tinker is spending time clearing his head after his failed marriage proposal to Eve. He has called Katey to the estate, and the two spend some quiet quality time together. Katey’s narrative pointedly notes that Tinker kept a “gentleman’s distance” from her; that his respect for their established friendship doesn’t go unnoticed seems to irk her. She decides to take matters into her own hands and pays Tinker a bedroom visit for what is implied to be a romantic encounter. Shocked Moment #1: Despite Katey’s obvious longings for Tinker, I did not expect her to initiate the relationship so brazenly (though I was not surprised that a romantic relationship between the two would occur). If I am learning anything from Rules of Civility, it’s that I had a very naive notion of how women in previous eras behaved. Even as an open-minded woman of the 21st century, I believed that the word “traditional” in terms of relationships between men and women meant what it does for a reason, based on the actions of those who came before us. I expected romance, a slowly-paced courtship—all directed by the man. Katey (as well as Eve and the other young women featured in the book) turned my ideas upside down. Were you surprised by Katey’s actions? Do you think her initiation of a romantic relationship with Tinker was in character, as well as in line with your ideas about women of the day?
Katey and Tinker agree to rendezvous, but before that meeting can take place, a spur-of-the-moment lunch date between Katey and her friend Bitsy ends up revealing a well-kept secret: a more-than-friends relationship between Tinker and his “godmother,” Anne Grandyn. Up until this point, I have not discussed Anne in my posts. While I found her to be a mysterious and rather intriguing character, I couldn’t quite make out how she fit into Katey’s story—and, moreover, why she seemed to pop up at the most random of places in Katey’s path. Shocked Moment #2: Anne, in fact, plays an essential role—perhaps the most important role—in our story. Katey, simply put, is floored by this information—as I was, and I am sure many of you were as well. What shocked Katey was not so much that a sexual relationship between Anne and Tinker existed, but what that relationship meant. All of the time Katey knew Tinker, she had believed he was someone who, in actuality, was his complete opposite: not the impeccably bred, privileged socialite he presented himself to be, but from a family whose luck had changed and led him to near-poverty. In many ways, Katey and Tinker are the same—from very little, but ambitious, chameleonlike, opportunistic, and shrewd. Yet Katey feels that she and Tinker take very different routes to achieve their goals, and she resents him for his choices. Do you think Katey and Tinker’s means to their ends are really so different from one another?
Katey experiences four key encounters in the next chapters: two with Anne, with Tinker, and with Dicky Vanderwhile, one of the crowd Katey runs with around town. For their first meeting, Anne summons Katey to her apartment to supposedly clear the air between them, but an icy exchange with an undercurrent of fierce jealousy clouds the scene. Anne tries to make the point that she was, in fact, not using Tinker so much as he and she were using each other, but Katey doesn’t seem to believe her. Then she encounters Tinker, who, like Anne, attempts to explain the relationship, only inflaming Katey more. Katey’s elevated state inspires a visit to Dicky, whom she seduces rather abruptly in his apartment (Shocked Moment #3!), a liaison that surprisingly leads to a rather conventional courtship. Anne appears again, this time at Katey’s apartment; in this visit, quite unlike the first, there is shared warmth between the two women and an (to me, completely out of nowhere) intimate near-encounter at its end. Somehow in this short time together, Katey seems to unearth some admiration for Anne, relating that “in many ways, she was the most beautiful woman” Katey had ever known. This scene made no sense to me, especially considering the last time the two women spoke. But maybe there’s something about Anne—and about Katey?—that I’m missing? What do you think inspired the change in their relationship? What motives lie underneath the surface of the women’s interaction?
Two events—Wallace’s death and the dissolution of her relationship with Dicky—lead Katey to come to terms with her lingering feelings for Tinker, and ultimately she tracks him down in the flophouse his brother occupied before joining the service. Without Anne’s support Tinker is no longer the slick, well-groomed seeming manifestation of high society. He has had time to think about his life, in both its former and its future states, and has made a decision upon which he is about to act—but not before he and Katey have a few final, meaningful days together. Katey admits, once she realizes Tinker is gone, that mixed in with her sadness is a slight feeling of relief. How did this conclusion influence your thoughts about Katey’s feelings for Tinker?
The epilogue returns us to Katey in her present day, recounting the story of her 1938 from the distance of middle age. Her life is, for the most part, a success, in her marriage, career, and social standing. Her dreams have been fulfilled…but I still sensed a certain wistfulness in her narrative in the end. Do you think Katey’s story is ultimately one of success or disappointment?
And so we return to 2012! I really enjoyed moderating this month’s book club discussion. Thank you all so much for your thoughtful, provocative comments! You’re in for a treat, too: Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility, will be answering your questions about his novel! If you want to ask Mr. Towles anything about his book, make sure to post your questions in the comments section below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Friday, March 2.
Thanks again for reading along with me!