A Guidebook for Life: Rules of Civility

BlogHer Review

Doesn't New York just turn you inside out?

An innocent question posed by a minor character inAmor Towles' Rules of Civility sets the tone for the entire novel. And for Katey Kontent (pronounced, as she says, like the state of being and not the contents of a book), the answer is a definite yes.

By December 1938, none of the characters are spared from being "turned inside out," their true natures exposed.

The ambitious. The wanna-be blue bloods. The pure of heart, the walking wounded, those who approach matters of the heart like the trading of stocks.

This is the story of the year that changed Katey's life. She and her best friend Eve, fresh from the Midwest but playing the role of the professional flirt, meet a wealthy man in a jazz joint by chance on New Year's Eve. Between gin martinis, Tinker Grey shows them his Manhattan and Katey and Eve show him theirs.

Tinker is a compelling character. From that first chance encounter one has the sense that there is more to him than meets the eye, and we continue to collect clues to his story throughout the novel. Also clear from the start is the connection he and Katey share, as though they are two sides to the same coin.

The novel is appealing on many levels. It can be seen as a kind of 1930's Sex and the City, with its romantic entanglements, club-hopping, and sense of style.

Some may be pulled into the novel because of its sense of history, as America had one foot in the Depression and the other in war. 

But more than anything, for me, Rules of Civility read like an experiment in sociology. The true romance of this story lies in the rich description of culture and class, and the psychology behind characters' motivations.

Ultimately, each character in the novel is just trying to make his or her mark on Manhattan. Each would do well to remember that life doesn't come with a guidebook, a set of instructions to mark off the list, but an individual's own set of morals, goals, and bottom lines.

But let's not disregard item 110 from Tinker Grey's copy of George Washington's Rules of Civility :"Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience." Maybe that's the most important rule of all.


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