The Magazine

City Confidential

A debut novel probes the soul of New York.

Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By ANN MARLOWE
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It is hard to exaggerate how good Rules is, but it is fair to note a few false notes. The largest is the effortless acceptance of Katherine Kontent by the New York society of 1938. In the novel’s first pages, Katey muses that “you can always tell a rich New York girl from a poor one.” And especially in 1938, accent was a giveaway: Think about the gap between, say, George Plimpton’s mid-Atlantic accent, or that of Katharine Hepburn, and middle-class speech of the day. Clothing, and the means to buy the right clothing, was another. Barely surviving on her secretary’s wage, how would Katherine Kontent have had the money even to approximate a few Café Society outfits? I don’t doubt that Katey could adopt the mannerisms of the upper class, but there would be a good many missteps along the way, and Towles doesn’t show us one.

My other quibble is that Rules shows us a New York almost devoid of Jews. There’s just one: a secretarial pool colleague of Katherine’s who makes a cameo appearance that doesn’t amount to as much as it initially promises. One other, a nightclub owner, gets only a mention. There are no Jewish lawyers or brokers or aspiring socialites here; yet in 1938, WASP society had been seeking to close the gates on well-educated, well-heeled Jews for 20 years or more.

And there are moments when Rules is a little too Art Deco, too much burnished chrome and pleasing curves, not enough rough-hewn oak and hand-forged iron. But just when I began to wonder if Amor Towles had spent too much time polishing—he wrote the book in one year, but revised it for three—Rules shook off its occasional stateliness and soared. Because I read it on Kindle, I can say exactly when it happened: a little over three-quarters of the way through. From there on, this novel moves at a fever pitch, exalted and gripping at once.

Towles is not just brilliant, he is wise; but he is also inexperienced in the novelist’s art. He has said in interviews that he wrote a novel before Rules and kept it in a drawer but has spent his adult life as an “investment professional.” He is eager to let us know (once again quoting from elsewhere) that “I could work without an overwhelming sense of urgency to be published. I could just keep refining my craft until I was convinced I had something worth sharing.” But as he probably understands, part of mastering one’s craft is a matter of putting in the time. As he has his narrator say, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances .  .  . shouldn’t come without a price."

Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and blogs for World Affairs.