The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

We first meet Katey at an art exhibit in 1966. It’s a show of photographs by Walker Evans from 1938 — portraits of New Yorkers riding the subway, a mix of that city’s rich, poor, well dressed, haggard, harried, hurried. Katey is there with her husband, Val. We know she has done well for herself because an aspiring novelist is also at the opening with his agent. When the agent sees Katey, his eyes light up, and he motions for her to come over. She nods politely and starts walking—and she and Val go right out the door.

That little scene tells us much of what we ultimately get to know about Katey—driven to inevitable success, living her life on her own terms, with no patience for anybody trying to take advantage of her.

At the exhibit, she notices photographs of an old friend, Tinker, and shows them to Val. In one photograph, Tinker is well dressed, looking like the affluent young banker she knew. In another he’s in threadbare clothes, even a bit dirty, but most important, happy. Katey tells Val she knew Tinker but the two don’t talk very much about it. Val can sense that there is more to the story, but he knows his wife, and doesn’t push. He thinks the scruffy photograph came first, but Katey clarifies that Tinker’s looks changed for the worse as the year went by. 

The rest of the book goes back to 1938 and tells us that story. Towles evokes images of pre-war New York that feel like old black-and-white movies—the light, the sounds, the energy of that city. It’s an especially vivid portrait, as seen primarily through the eyes of  Katey, 24 at the time; her friend, Evie; and of course Tinker. Nobody is who we think they are. They may not even be who they think they are.

Even though Katey is the narrator, this is Tinker’s story. As Katey’s trajectory points toward success, Tinker’s takes a turn away from glamour and toward a more honest, connected life. Judging by the photographs, a happier life.

The novel takes place almost entirely in 1938 with these young vibrant New Yorkers drinking remarkable amounts of alcohol and having witty Spencer-Tracy- Katharine-Hepburn-type conversations as they wander to speakeasies, bars, and fancy homes. We learn the least about Katey. As the narrator, she can tell us as much or as little as she wants. We get a sense of who she is professionally, but not a clear understanding of her personal background.  

The novel is a delight to read, even though at times you might challenge some of its assumptions. The images and the characters, including New York itself, will stay with you long after you finish the book.

To add authenticity, Towles uses photos from Evans’ exhibit throughout the book.

The book takes its title from George Washington’s Rules of Civility, 110 pieces of advice the future president wrote when he was 14. Tinker uses them to try to fit into a society to which he feels he does not belong. The last rule may say the most about his life choices as the year progresses:

Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.

— Pat Prijatel

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

“We were the great believers.
I have never cared for any men as much as for these who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved—and who now walk the long stormy summer.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My Generation”

Rebecca Makkai’s great believers are those who faced the trauma of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the mid-1980s, part of a lost generation of men who were the first to be affected by the deadly disease that decimated the gay community. With gentle honesty, she shows us these men — their lives, and their dreams of love, a family, a home of their own. They faced the cruelty and stigmatism of a mysterious disease that brought loss after loss of loved ones, with no hope of a cure.

The main character, Yale, has a rewarding career as an art curator, but his life is thrown into chaos after a brief encounter with a young man and a major betrayal by his partner. Then he meets Nora, an elderly woman who was part of the art world in Paris in the 1920s, who offers a valuable trove of original art that could make Yale a major player in the 1980s art world.  

If he can pull it off.

If he survives to pull it off.

A second story line follows Nora’s great niece Fiona into middle age and is a conduit for the stories of another lost generation, the survivors of World War I. Fiona is also the sister of the first man to die of AIDS in the novel and is the figurative little sister of his entire group of friends. In Paris, she reconnects with other survivors of that Chicago group while she searchers for evidence of Nora’s history as a muse, model, and artist. She uncovers the stories of the men who died in the war, or who survived mentally and physically damaged. She’s also there searching for her daughter, who had joined a cult, but escaped and then disappeared.

That’s a lot of stories for a reader to digest.

Makkai says her initial goal was to write a book about Nora looking back at her own history, but the 1980s section took on a life of its own. Ultimately the AIDS story line became the book’s primary focus, but Makkai didn’t want to give up on Nora. The result, though, is a novel that goes in so many directions with so many characters the reader sometimes loses the narrative.

Still, Makkai did remarkable research and her writing is so strong we feel the 1980’s characters’ trauma, appreciating the horror they faced in a way we might not have done in real time. Makkai gives AIDS a staggering humanity.

She says the book is in many ways a war novel. As one character in 1980s Chicago notes, “This is a war, it is. It’s like you’ve been in the trenches for seven years. And no one’s gonna understand that. No one’s gonna give you a Purple Heart.”

— Pat Prijatel

Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

Good writers build a strong story arc that sustains their novel. Better writers manage double arcs. It takes a Louise Penny to create three separate story lines, braiding them together seamlessly around a complex theme.

Bury Your Dead is a mystery masterpiece in which Penny shows confidence in her craft and in her reader. We’ll be deep in one storyline when she abruptly, with little or no transition, drops us into another a second story, then a third. We follow because we’re living the stories with her. We need no transition. We’re there.

The book includes one current and one past murder, plus a recent police raid that went horribly wrong, and from which both Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his second-on-command, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir are recovering. In all three storylines, the title comes into play as characters bury their dead in multiple ways, sometimes unsuccessfully.

The current case is the murder of a man who has been in search of the body of the explorer Samuel de Champlain. He thinks he has found Champlain in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. As Gamache is recovering at the home of his mentor in Quebec City, the Lit and His, as the society is nicknamed, has become one of Gamache’s favorite spots, and he is among the first on the scene when the murder is discovered. This plotline takes us into the history of Quebec and the centuries-long conflicts between the English and the French. Where is Champlain’s body? Nobody knows for sure, but Penny offers some suggestions. Under the Lit and His? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Here, the dead clearly include Champlain, but also the casualties of the Seven Years War of the mid 1700s between the French and English. Focusing on the ongoing conflict between the Quebecois and Quebeckers, Penny shows that those dead remain much among us in political tensions that still divide the people of Quebec.

The second story line is in Gamache’s head, as he relives the disastrous case that left him and Jean-Guy seriously wounded and killed several of Gamache’s agents, including Paul Morin, a young man with a talent on the violin and a gift of storytelling. Gamache maintains a 24-hour phone conversation with Morin while the entire Sûreté du Québec tries to find where the agent is being held. He has been kidnapped and attached to a bomb that will detonate in 24 hours—sooner, if the line goes quiet. Whoever planned this wants Gamache to stay at his desk. He doesn’t, of course. This is a seminal case in the series and influences several of the subsequent books. Yet the story is told only in flashbacks. On first reading, you think you missed a book somewhere, but no, this is the first mention of the case, told as Gamache mentally recreates it. Penny trusts us to get it, and we do. The burial of the agents who died under Gamache’s command was so traumatic that his grief-stricken face ended up on magazine covers.

The third story arc is perhaps the most tragic, ending the novel with a twist of family loss and revenge. It’s a continuation of the previous novel, A Brutal Telling, in which Olivier Brule, co-owner of the bistro in the mythical and magical Three Pines, was convicted of murder. Gamache begins rethinking the case and asks Jean-Guy, who is also on medical leave, to re-investigate. The resolution is the stuff of Greek tragedy, and leaves behind a devastated family. In this case, the dead aren’t who we think they are, nor are they buried where we think.

This is a heady book that gets better with multiple readings. It has Penny’s trademark charm and wit. One English character knows French well as a written language, but when she tries to speak it, she encourages people to become umlauts and calls the night a strawberry. Gamache wanders the streets of Old Quebec City in the quiet of the night, his steps crunching in the snow, with Henri, his beloved German Shepherd who is so full of love it doesn’t matter that he’s far from the world’s smartest dog. The Three Pines characters all make an appearance, and the ragged and rugged old poet, Ruth, builds a unique bond with Jean-Guy. It’s cold in Quebec, but these characters stay warm with one another, settled into comfy chairs in front of the bistro fire, watching through mullioned windows as the snow falls onto the three pines in the town center.

— Pat Prijatel