Today, I finished one of those books that made me really reluctant to leave the world of its characters, but also excited to evangelize its wonders to anyone I know willing to listen. That would include you, blog readers 🙂
It was Amor Towles’s 2011 novel Rules of Civility. I’d love to discuss!!
I was inclined to like it from the outset because it is in many ways an ode to Modernism, my favorite era/movement. Still, it was the characters and their dialogue that surpassed my expectations.
Set it Jazz Age NYC (mainly 1937, but told in one extended flashback), its main characters are forging their fates on several interwoven echelons of society. It features the narrator, Katey Kontent, now on my list of favorite protagonists.
One resonant passage comes toward the end, as she is contemplating the trajectory of her life, some aspects of which she steered, and others which were decidedly haphazard.
“It is a bit of a cliché to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time – by the slightest turn of the wheel, the wisdom goes, we influence the chain of events and thus recast our destiny with new cohorts, circumstances, and discoveries. But for the most of us, life is nothing like that. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options. Do I take this job or that job? In Chicago or New York? Do I join this circle of friends or that one, and with whom do I go home at the end of the night? And does one make time for children now? Or later? Or later still?”
The -arkies and I have been grappling with such decisions lately, and I know we’re not alone among my other friends. This is one of those “brief periods” that confronts us with one crossroads after another in a relatively short span of time. They feel hugely decisive in influencing the lives we hope to have. In some ways, what happens is often out of our hands, and it would be presumptuous to suppose we can dictate it all. “Man supposes, God disposes” etc. Beyond that, it’s senseless to agonize over every decision because the outcomes are unknown regardless. And yet… our futures must be acknowledged consequences of our choices. It does matter that I chose to study medicine in Budapest and not epidemiology in NYC. In saying yes to one life, I said no to another. I’ve always been one to wonder what the road not taken holds, even if I am contentedly traveling down the other.
Katey addresses this, too:
I have no doubt that they were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.
It’s not a new sentiment. Tomas Tranströmer writes that every life “has a sister ship”, which Cheryl Strayed (whose latest book is not-so-coincidentally linked in my last post) says we can only salute from the shore of our lived-in life. Arthur Miller said that all we can hope for is to “end up with the right regrets”. Maybe I have to learn to eschew the negative connotations of “regret”, since, in fact, it is necessarily a byproduct of a life with choices.