Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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Audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman.

“Be careful of choosing what you’re proud of,” warns Katey Kontent, the protagonist of this 1930s-era fiction, “because the world has every intention of using it against you.” In her chronicle of Katey’s experiences in 1938, Amore Towles weaves an intricate web of clever deception, wicked circumstances, and simultaneous self-preservation and discovery.

Katey is a sharp, independent female with a realistic understanding of the world in which she lives and a fierce loyalty to her sense of self. On New Year’s Eve 1938, she and her friend Eve encounter a well-to-do banker sort in a low-rent bar in New York City. For awhile, the three are inseparable, and Katey allows herself to develop feelings for Tinker, the banker, who willingly allows himself to develop feelings for her as well. But when tragedy strikes in the form of a car accident, the relationship dynamics change, and Katey is forced to suppress her feelings. Lack of family and true personal ties (outside her ties to Eve, that is) leaves her to find solace within herself.

Over the course of the year, Katey spends her time trying to avoid Eve and Tinker, and for the most part, she is nearly successful. She manages to occupy her time developing her career and reading and trying on new personas to see whether they fit. When she finally makes her way back to Tinker, her return serves no other purpose than to offer closure to both characters after which they both seek themselves in a larger world than either had ever previously considered.

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The title, Rules of Civility, is more of an indictment of such rules. Anne Granden, Tinker Grey, and Eve herself suggest that the rules of civility aren’t really rules at all. Or, in any case, if their behavior constitutes civility, we might all be better off without it, a fact Katey seems always to have known.

The audiobook incarnation of this book is every bit as moving as an actual physical reading of the book could have been. Narrator Rebecca Lowman (who also narrates Anthropology of an American Girl) is particularly gifted at interpreting nuances and expressing them in a way that seems inherent to the characters. Her reading provides a depth and clarity not always present in audiobooks and turns the experience of listening into a more meaningful one.

Terminal Notes: While love is indeed thwarted in a superficial way here, it is fully realized in a more significant way. Tinker and Katey love each other. They did from the very beginning. Although the outcome of their love is not what we might have hoped for, not what we might have expected, it proves to be the very definition of complete, the definition, as it were, of civility.

 

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

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Audiobook narrated by Lorna Raver

Women in history have gotten up to some pretty amazing things, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh is no different. She was educated, brave, daring, worthy of attention in her own right. But her achievements have all but fallen by the wayside, eclipsed by the shadow of her larger-than-life husband. His achievements are the ones we remember, the ones we are taught in school. In The Aviator’s Wife, however, Melanie Benjamin seeks to give voice to a woman whose guts and gumption not even her husband could match.

Benjamin’s work is one of historical fiction, largely biographical but fictionally personal. She seeks to lend a new perspective to the story of Charles Lindbergh, or “Lucky Lindy” as he is so often called. We see, through Anne’s eyes, a new perspective on the events of their lives, what it was like to be an early celebrity always in the spotlight, what it was like to have a child kidnapped and to have the whole experience chronicled by American media, what it was like to be married to someone who is emotionally unavailable. In some respects, these experiences are unfamiliar. Most of us will never know what it’s like to have the spotlight ever on us, watching every move, marking every fault and bad decision. In other respects, though, Anne’s story is one that’s been echoed by women across generations. She struggles with who she is (mother, wife, aviatrix, writer, lover) and who she wants to be. She questions whether she can wear so many hats all at once, whether anyone will ever remember her as anything other than “Charles Lindbergh’s wife.” In this way, Benjamin is able to capture the universality of some experiences, showing us that humanity is inescapable, regardless of the historical setting or the social context of our situations.

While the idea of having this new perspective is thrilling in some ways, making these historical figures more real to those of us who remember them only through textbooks, the unreliability of the narrator is a factor here, and at times readers may find themselves prompting a reminder that this account is fiction, even though it is based on real events and people.

For all its relevance to female life, some readers may find themselves frustrated with Anne’s apparent lack of backbone in the story when it comes to her relationship with her husband. She realizes fairly early on in their marriage that theirs is not one of equality and romance, and according to her narrative voice, she is at least somewhat bitter towards Charles throughout their whole marriage. But she never does anything about it, at least not in a way that Charles ever knows about. Call it the convention of the time, call it weakness, but Anne’s lack of backbone where her husband is concerned is nothing short of frustrating throughout the narrative.

Terminal Notes: Readers will be entertained by this version of Anne’s story, despite some unreliability and the tenuous relationship between reader and protagonist. While Anne’s inability to stand up to her husband in any real way is frustrating, she is also a surprisingly sympathetic character whose life is as worthy of consideration as her husband’s, albeit for different reasons.