It begins with our New Yorker heroine, the marvellously named Katey Kontent, at an exhibition in the 1960s, examining two photos of dashing, wealthy Theodore 'Tinker' Grey.
In the first he is rich and serious; in the second trampy and happy – but which came first? Rewind to 1938 for a year in the life of Katey, a beautiful, smart, if poverty-stricken legal secretary, tearing Manhattan up with her thrillingly rebellious best friend Eve. Then they meet Tinker, a rich socialite who becomes the object of both of their affections, who takes to Katey immediately. At first, the trio's lives are pure high-glam Jazz Age stuff, all cocktails, heavy smoking and heavier flirting, fine fashion and high-speed verbal sparring. But the ladies' subtle one-upmanship is inverted when Eve and Tinker are involved in a serious car accident, and their lives are suddenly forced on to a different track.
If the premise of Towles' debut novel sounds lightweight (it's not) or pastichey (it is, but wonderfully so) then who cares – this is one of the most outright entertaining novels of the year so far.
Towles' elegant prose is honed to absolute precision, his mixture of quotable lines and sharp, characterful observation as addictive and pure as an unadulterated Martini. Rules of Civility exists in a middle ground between the stratified social playground of Edith Wharton and the Manhattan-centred, pre-Mad Men world of Colm Toibin's Brooklyn or Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything. And at the story's heart is the familiar but always fascinating frisson created by Gatsby/Draper-style secrets.
If there is a criticism, it's that the sections in which Eve and Katey are apart, including much of the middle of the book, lose a snip of the spark of the electrifying moments when they are together. For this book is – surprisingly, perhaps, for a book by a man – almost exclusively about women's relationships with each other: the support they give each other in a male-dominated environment, and how they simultaneously denigrate each other to win over those men.
Katey, refreshingly, seems to stand outside this system, though she is by no means a straightforward heroine, and is quite capable of being bitchy or snide, retaining special contempt for, as she wittily points out, those who earn just a dollar more or a dollar less. It's questionable whether women really had as much freedom in pre-World War II New York as portrayed here, but regardless, this stunningly presented book (all lush art deco) is one that should be read and read this summer.
This might be the first you've heard of Rules of Civility, but should you know someone who's picks it up, it undoubtedly won't be the last.