Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3 stars
Date begun: December 9th, 2011
Date finished: December 11th, 2011
In the book's prologue, the protagonist of the story, Katey, is in an art gallery with her husband in 1966. They're looking at photographs taken on the New York subway in 1937-38. In two of the photos, she recognises an old friend, Tinker Grey, in vastly different circumstances, despite the photos being taken less than a year apart. In the first, taken in 1937, he's clean-shaven, snappily dressed and obviously wealthy, whilst in the photo from late 1938, he's scruffy, wearing a threadbare coat and clearly much more down on his luck. Seeing the pictures, makes her think back to her youth, 25 years ago.
Katey Kontent (originally Katya - daughter of Russian immigrants) is young and optimistic as the year nears its end in 1937. She's an accomplished typist, commended by her superiors, and shares a flat with her best friend Eve, a beauty from the Midwest. In a jazz club on New Year's Eve, the two of them meet Tinker Grey - a young, handsome investment banker. Both girls are smitten with him, but before either of them get a proper chance with him, their lives change dramatically one evening early in 1938. They're in a car accident and Eve is seriously injured. Tinker insists that she recuperate and heal in his lavish flat on the Upper West Side. Katey and Eve grow ever more estranged, and Katey gives up Tinker as lost.
Over the course of the year, many things change for Katey. She starts moving up in society, making influential friends. She changes careers and learns a lot about reinvention, both of her own and others' identities. By the end of 1938, she's learned that one cannot trust outward appearances, both in positive and negative respects.
The book is wonderfully written, with beautiful observations on Jazz Era New York. I've read several reviews that compared it to The Great Gatsby, but unlike that book (which bored me senseless), I actually enjoyed this one. The main reason for that is Katey, who's a wonderful heroine and I kept reading to see how her life developed. She's witty, clever, ambitious and observant, yet both she and the reader are forced to reevaluate their opinions on most of the events and characters in the story There are a number of twists, and just as you think you have a clear picture of what's going on, Towles turns the tables once more. This is his debut novel, and I will absolutely be looking for more of his books.