Get Lost in Rules of Civility

BlogHer Review

Set in New York City between the Depression and World War II, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles is a lovely novel that follows a steely and intellectual working class girl and daughter of Russian immigrants, Katey Kontent, through a life-altering year during her mid-twenties.

Kontent is catapulted into a glamorous career and social life through a series of chance encounters and carefully calculated schemes involving martinis, long hours of work, jazz and a trip or two to Bendel’s department store. 

Served in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Rules is a beautifully written and structured read with a glamorous setting which transports us to a bygone era with sentences so well-composed that you want to cry tears of joy. (Or maybe that’s just me.)

“I knew too well the nature of life’s distractions and enticements -- how the piecemeal progress of our hopes and ambitions commands our undivided attention, reshaping the ethereal into the tangible, and commitments into compromises.”

In fact, my greatest fear is that Towles has regurgitated all of his elegant wisdom into this novel so that he will not have anything left to say in future novels.

However, the implausibility of main character’s drive and strength in the face of a love triangle and an uncertain future, along with the relative ease with which she enters the circles of New York City’s high society creates just enough doubt to keep Rules off of my favorite-books-ever-read list.

In contrast to Kontent, the most compelling and complex character in the book is Tinker Grey who is supposedly a self-made banker whom Kontent pines for in her coldly determined yet patient and male-like manner.  Grey is wonderfully human, as he is flawed, full of surprises and ludicrously uses George Washington’s outdated 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation as his guide to life among the upper class.

Rules of Civility is far too enjoyable a read to get caught up in skepticism and over-analysis, however.

The pure joy of reliving NYC history and following the social lives of singles in their twenties was enough to suspend my disbelief.

”In our twenties when, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions -- we draw a card and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second.  And 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.”

Full of rich prose and exquisite charm,Rules of Civility is the perfect summer read best served with a cocktail and a healthy dose of nostalgia for an era in American big-city life which felt unlimited in its potential for romance and prosperity, despite a world war looming in the distance and financial hardship in the foreground.

One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements.

And a simple pleasure Towles has given us, without a doubt.

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