Katey, the central character, is a secretary in 1937 New York. Intelligent, witty, and good-looking, she blends into the smart set despite her humble beginnings. A dashing banker named Tinker Grey catches her fancy, an attraction that seems reciprocated, but Katey’s close friend has her eye on him, too. The plot explores the often complex relationships between girlfriends, lovers, and the highly stratified classes of that time and place. The vivid pictures of the era are captivating and the life lessons worth heeding, but ultimately the joy of this book is the astoundingly delightful dialog.
Towles is more than a good writer; he is superb. The characters banter with a wit we would all want to possess. (He wouldn’t stoop to such clumsy alliteration, either). Wit is often paired with intelligence, but rarely with good cheer. Too often it is barbed. Somehow this author manages to dispense with meanness in the repartee. The characters all seem to be having fun the entire time and this constant delight rubbed off on me as I made my way through what at first seemed a rather slow-moving story. An additional plus is that they all to one extent or another were likeable, notwithstanding some rather unlikable behavior from time to time. They all display the titular civility that characterized that societal strata. Such a refreshing thing that is, too.
Stripped of its wittiness and lush metaphors and descriptions, the plot is not so original. I could name one or two similar stories, but I don’t want to give any spoilers. Still, it is rare for a book to grow so much on me. I could easily stretch this to five stars were it not for the fact I think much of its value, its sheer erudition, will be lost on the average reader or even some above-average readers. I know that sounds rather conceited, but as a novelist I know fine craftsmanship when I see it. I listened to it in audiobook form and the reader, Rebecca Lowman, was outstanding.