Manhattan in the late 1930s is the setting for this saga of a bright, attractive and ambitious young woman whose relationships with her insecure roommate and the privileged Adonis they meet in a jazz club are never the same after an auto accident.
Towles' buzzed-about first novel is an affectionate return to the post–Jazz Age years, and the literary style that grew out of it (though seasoned with expletives). Brooklyn girl Katey Kontent and her boardinghouse mate, Midwestern beauty Eve Ross, are expert flirts who become an instant, inseparable threesome with mysterious young banker Tinker Grey. With him, they hit all the hot nightspots and consume much alcohol. After a milk truck mauls his roadster with the women in it, permanently scarring Eve, the guilt-ridden Tinker devotes himself to her, though he and she both know he has stronger feelings for Katey. Strong-willed Katey works her way up the career ladder, from secretarial job on Wall Street to publisher’s assistant at Condé Nast, forging friendships with society types and not allowing social niceties to stand in her way. Eve and Tinker grow apart, and then Kate, belatedly seeing Tinker for what he is, sadly gives up on him. Named after George Washington's book of moral and social codes, this novel documents with breezy intelligence and impeccable reserve the machinations of wealth and power at an historical moment that in some ways seems not so different from the current one. Tinker, echoing Gatsby, is permanently adrift. The novel is a bit light on plot, relying perhaps too much on description. But the characters are beautifully drawn, the dialogue is sharp and Towles avoids the period nostalgia and sentimentality to which a lesser writer might succumb.
An elegant, pithy performance by a first-time novelist who couldn’t seem more familiar with his characters or territory.