The 'Rules of Civility' are a Guide to Social Climbing

BlogHer Review

Thirty years after her last encounter with her friends in 1938, Katey Kontent sees two candid photographs of a former lover that cause her to look back on the choices she made that year. Amor Towles' Rules of Civility is not a love story: it is a retelling of one woman's memories and introspection about the options we have and the decisions we make. "Life is less like a journey than it is a game of honeymoon bridge...before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come."

Some disclaimers here: 1) I usually avoid literature. I live in the real world enough to not want art to emulate life. 2) I generally avoid books with female protagonists written by men. They sometimes come across as improperly fleshed out or caricature-like. Women are complicated creatures. That said, I wanted to read this book because I was intrigued by the time (1938) and setting (New York City) and wanted to see just what the "Rules of Civility" are. I'm glad I did.

What are they? Well, as it turns out they're George Washington's list of 110 tenets of good behavior and what Katey's friend Tinker subscribes to in order to facilitate his social climbing. Katey is put off by them, but realizes that she is a bit of a social climber herself. "But as the Greeks teach us, there is only one remedy for that sort of hubris...And it comes with an appropriate raise in pay, responsibilities, and professional status."

I won't discuss the story's plot. It's really a slice-of-life rather than an adventure, so it's easy to say too much. What I will say is that the story is exceptionally crafted and well-paced. Once I got through chapter four I was so drawn into Rules of Civility that I had to make bargains with myself to get other things done. "Two more pages," I'd tell myself. Then that would turn into "Let's just finish this chapter." I was intrigued by Katey's chutzpah and wondering what bits of disaster would befall her friends.

Towles is a masterful prose technician and I sat in awe at his use of descriptive language and conversation that seemed so genuine it could have been transcribed from tape recordings. The book is sprinkled with dry humor and one-liners throughout that made Katey seem like someone you really want to have in your book club.

And speaking of Katey: she's smart. I don't know she's smart because Towles tells us she is, but because she says things like "be careful when choosing what you're proud of -- because the world has every intention of using it against you." That turned out to be true for all of her close friends from 1938.

My only quibble about Rules of Civility is that when I was done, I wanted to know more about Katey. She remained a woman of mystery at the end, but I suppose that's to be expected from a story that's a memory of a single year. I hope there's a sequel because I'd love to know what happened to Katey between 1940 and 1966, and also how she decided to become "Katey" rather than "Katya."