I thought the worst kind of book club is when you have a meeting that goes very badly, but it turns out that's the second worst kind. The worst kind is when you read a really great book that you really want to talk about and then no one is able to get together for a meeting. I want to talk about it!
The book is The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. You won't find a lot in the blurbs about the plot, which is as it should be--it's not a book about action and twists, but you never really know quite what will happen, and that's a big part of the appeal. I'll tell you a little bit more, but first I want to warn you--at the end of this post, I'm going to put some discussion questions that I was going to ask my book club. They're very spoilery, so you should not read all the way through if you're ever going to read the book.
First the plot, though. The story follows the narrator, Katey, for a year--1938, to be precise. At the beginning, on New Year's Eve, she and her boardinghouse roommate, Eve, meet Tinker Gray (I keep wanting to say Tinker Bell, not because of the Peter Pan character, oddly enough, but because of Stringer Bell from The Wire). Tinker is a well-to-do banker, and their new-acquaintance banter reveals that he's feeling stuck in a rut. This is the beginning of a friendship between the three that will lead all kinds of places, bring all kinds of new people into Katey's life, and reveal a lot of the world to her. It's a book that is very much about Manhattan, and about being a woman in the first half of the century. It's about the end of the Depression, and about class and money and charm.
One of my favorite things about the book is that Katey feels like a mystery to us, even though the story is told in the first person, and even though we have plenty of information about her. Her life before the story begins is told in bits and pieces, the way you learn about anybody's life--where she grew up, the bones of her family structure, anecdotes here and there that fill things out. I love that you spend the book getting to know everyone as Katey does, but also getting to know Katey.
Okay, book club questions coming up in a second. First, to fill space, I'll say that this book reminded me of watching all my favorite old movies--All About Eve, Stage Door, Laura, and The Philadelphia Story. I wish I could read it again.
But here are the questions. Total spoilers, I warn you. But fellow book clubbers, if you want to answer, you totally should.
1) Did Tinker have to leave everything behind to redeem himself? I mean, he was a banker, right? Was the all-or-nothing choice that he makes at the end because he, personally, psychologically had to get away, or because it was really the only thing that could be done, or because that was the right life for him all along?
2) What do you think of Eve's disappearing act? She's such a huge part of the first half of the book, but she's also so different from Katey--did her departure make her feel less like a real person, or just less like Katey's close friend? I thought it was really significant that she came from money--what she and Katey admire and are looking for is so different, even if neither of them cares about money.
3) What do you think of Wallace, Dickey, and Tate? I think it's interesting how Katey triangulates herself around these three men in the later parts of the book. She's looking for herself, but why does it seem like the men in her life are where she orients herself? There are plenty of women--Eve, Bitsy, Anne--but the men are so much more reflective of where she is. Is that because of her self-possession? Her career-mindedness? Or just because she's not all about love and romance? Not that the other women appear to be. Can't quite get a handle on this one.
4) Did you see Tinker's revelation coming? What did you think of it, and of Katey's reaction to it? I actually wasn't that surprised--I thought something like that near the beginning of the book--but my feelings about it really changed once Katey reacted to it. I mean, I wasn't that surprised but I hadn't really thought about what it said about his character, but as soon as Katey had a reaction, my response was filtered through her reaction.
If you've read the book, I hope you read the questions, and if you do, I'd love it if you responded. I'm really dying to talk to someone about this--to the point where I asked my husband (who hasn't read it) these questions yesterday and he made a valiant effort at answering. (Eve represents innocence, and Dickey is the serpent in the Garden of Eden, in case you were wondering.) Really, if you have any thoughts at all, please do comment. Thank you, virtual book clubbers!