Rules of Civility and Getting Ahead in Polite Society

BlogHer Review

Rules of Civility, the debut novel by Amor Towles, follows a year in the life of Katherine Kontent (emphasis on the –tent, like the emotion).  Yet content is no way to describe Kate as she navigates New York City through a maze of chance meetings and fortuitous happenings.

The story begins in 1966 with Kate and her husband visiting an exhibit of subway photos taken in the late 1930s. They stumble upon two portraits of banker Tinker Grey, one showing him in a state of struggle, the other in a state of surplus.  Those images are indeed worth at least a thousand words each and the rest of the book fills in the circumstances around the photographs.

With the welcoming of a new year, Kate and her feisty roommate Eve also welcomed Tinker into their lives.  The random meeting on the eve of 1938 set in motion a series of events that would intertwine and change their lives completely.

The novel is many stories in one, yet each is developed with intention and great purpose.  Over the next year, there is love, friendship, status climbing, and heartbreak.  Each character approaches life in their own way as they search for their place in society.  Tinker follows “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company & Conversation,” a set of 110 guidelines for proper conduct in polite society. Eve thrives on excitement and lives for the moment.  Kate, while not overtly ambitious, is a strong woman who manages to capitalize on the opportunities she is presented, working her way ahead through a mixture of fortune and innate resourcefulness.  When the story ends, none of the characters are where we expect them to be when we meet them all on that festive night. 

There is a scene in which Kate starts watching a movie from the halfway point, then stays on to watch the first half.  She observes that this is truer to real life, where things are often unresolved at the end.  In many ways, this book is like that.  It is very much a slice of the lives represented, leaving many questions about eventual outcomes. 

While Kate, Eve, and Tinker fill the majority of the pages with their interactions, another character worth mentioning is the city of New York itself.  Towles does an amazing job of setting the scene and allowing the city to play a role in the action without stealing the show.  Still, Rules of Civility gives a delightful taste of how both the elite and the aspiring classes lived in the tough and vibrant city.

Rules of Civility is beautifully composed.  Though it is prose, many passages sing with their carefully crafted word choices.  The dialogue is plucky, the descriptions grand, and the characters well-developed.  When a character falls from grace, it is to Towles’ credit that readers will feel disappointment and still wish for redemption.  The characters do not exist as simply good or bad people, but as complex individuals with their own histories, dreams, and methods. 

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s a great book for writers, quoting many classics while following Kate’s professional progression into the publishing world. The relationships between the characters and the 1930’s New York class system were intriguing.  I most appreciated Kate for her hard work and strong, deliberate approach to improving her place in society while so many around her took shortcuts and played games to get ahead.  In the end, it was Kate’s grounded approach that left the greatest impression and she is a character I’ll miss now that my reading has concluded.

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