The Great Gatsby is currently inspiring Baz Luhrmann, Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, but the (arguably) Great American Novel has a farther reach than just Hollywood. It’s also played muse to generations of readers, drinkers, cheaters and partiers — and more than a few authors. But, though imitation may be a sincere form of flattery and all, it doesn’t necessarily make for a good novel; many of the knockoffs don’t come close to the level of Fitzgerald’s original.
But then there’s the rare book that’s both a fitting tribute and a great story in its own right — a book like Rules of Civility. Clearly inspired, at least to some extent, by F. Scott’s work, Towles isn’t a copycat as much as a kindred spirit. He knows what he’s doing with story and language, and he has real insight into the human character. Like Fitzgerald before him, he brings us into the world of the wealthy and lets us experience all the glamour, all the bubbly … and all the empty dreams and scandal as well.
Jim and I look askance at this book. Both because we’re skeptical, and because we like to look askance at stuff.
Like Gatsby, Civility is the story of young people drinking and partying their way through New York society. Like Gatsby, it has clear themes of reinvention and loneliness. It has a love triangle, and characters who hide their histories and change their names (big surprise — heroine Katey Kontent wasn’t born with that overly alliterative title). But, unlike the tale of Daisy and Jay, which is set right before the U.S. tips into The Great Depression, Rules of Civility takes place mostly in 1938, just as the nation claws its way out. These characters aren’t as bored as Fitzgerald’s, and they’re not as cocky. They know exactly what life can cost them, and they’re determined to hang on to anything they can get.
That determination to hold on keeps Katey from rocking the boat with her best friend, Eve, even when it’s clear they’re interested in the same man. Their love triangle is more ballroom dance than barroom brawl, with each character making careful steps instead of broad romantic gestures. (In that way, it’s a little like Downton Abbey, but with martinis and jazz music instead of tea and garden parties.)
It’s true that Civility owes a lot to its predecessor, but it’s not derivative. The novel stands on its own — the writing is lovely, the story is interesting, and the characters are likable, making it as appropriate as an addictive beach book as it is a serious novel. It’s the story of a girl who’s reinventing herself in a nation that’s just starting to change its story as well. Since we Americans live in a constant state of reinvention, it’s the kind of novel that will always be relevant to us — just like Gatsby.