Rules of Civility – Book Review

Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our masters’ wares with our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christies promise. We look around at the characters cast in our own lives – our heiresses and gardeners, our vicars and nannies, our late-arriving guests who are not exactly what they seem – and discover that before the end of the weekend all assembled will get their just deserts. But when we do so, we rarely remember to count ourselves among their company. – from Rules of Civility, page 252 –

Katey Kontent and her effervescent roommate Eve are spending their last night of 1937 in a Greenwich Village jazz bar. By chance, they cross paths with Tinker Grey who is handsome, wealthy and charming. Both young women find themselves irresistibly drawn to Tinker, an attraction that threatens to divide their friendship. When a night out on the town goes horribly wrong, Katey must use her spunk, wits and intelligence to overcome poverty and betrayal and find her way through New York high society.

Rules of Civility is narrated in the voice of Katey nearly thirty years after her first encounter with Tinker when she was a twenty-five year old secretary trying to work her way to the top.  Katey introduces the reader to a large cast of memorable characters which include a manipulative widow named Anne Grandyn, the honorable and sweet Wallace Wolcott, and Katey’s power hungry boss Mason Tate. Amor Towles creates a party-like atmosphere of young adults crossing paths, finding love (or not), and uncovering family secrets. Characters move in and out of the narrative with Katey as the pivotal character around whom they all spin.

Towles keeps the tone of his debut novel lighthearted and sharp, and seamlessly integrates the atmosphere of New York City in the late 1930s.

Sitting in that seat, in the span of a sandwich you could pay witness to the pilgrimage of New York’s devoted. Hailing from every corner of Europe, donned in every shade of gray, they turned their backs on the Statue of Liberty and marched instinctively up Broadway, leaning with pluck into a cautionary wind, gripping identical hats to identical haircuts, happy to count themselves among the indistinguishable. With over a millennia of heritage behind them, each with their own glimpse of empire and some pinnacle of human expression (a Sistine Chapel or Gotterdammerung), now they were satisfied to express their individuality through which Rogers they preferred at the Saturday matinee: Ginger or Roy or Buck. America may be the land of opportunity, but in New York it’s the shot at conformity that pulls them through the door. – from Rules of Civility, page 39 –

Filled with literary references, clever dialogue and intriguing plot, The Rules of Civility is an engaging book. Towles explores the idea of fate or chance vs. being the maker of our own destiny. Katey meets Tinker by accident, but realizes early on that she must find her own path despite what cards fate deals her. Even with this knowledge, she struggles to understand the consequences of not only her choices, but the choices of others.

There is an oft-quoted passage in Walden, in which Thoreau exhorts us to find our pole star and to follow it unwaveringly as would a sailor or a fugitive slave. It’s a thrilling sentiment – one so obviously worthy of our aspirations. But even if you had the discipline to maintain the true course, the real problem it has always seemed to me, is how to know in which part of the heavens your star resides. – from The Rules of Civility, page 230 –

Katey Kontent is one of those characters who begs the reader to travel with her along her journey. We want to see her succeed. We want her to find love. Our hearts ache when she stumbles, and rejoices when she overcomes adversity. Vibrant, smart and with just enough innocence to make her believable, Katey is a heroine who readers will not soon forget.

Amor Towles has written a wonderful first novel. He is an author to watch.


FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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  1. It sounds like this would be worth reading for the literary references alone. It’s on my wish list.

    • Kailana on September 4, 2011 at 17:21

    I agree with your sentiment. An author worth watching! If this is the first book, just imagine the potential for the second…

    • zibilee on September 5, 2011 at 06:53

    I have been really keen on buying this book since first reading how wonderful it is. It sounds like it tells a really good story in a very engaging way and that the characters are realistic and likeable. I think I am just going to have to go get this one now. After reading your review, I know that I can’t ignore it any longer!

  2. My book club is reading this one for September based on my recommendation and I convinced my mom to buy a copy earlier today. I thought it was wonderful atmospheric!

    • Wendy on September 12, 2011 at 07:30

    Kathy: I enjoyed all the literary references 🙂

    Kailana: Exactly! I think we will be seeing more from this very talented author.

    Heather: I hope you love it!

    Stephanie: Yes – very atmospheric (which I loved). I bet this will make a great discussion book.

    • barbara on September 23, 2011 at 11:58

    I’m currently reading this book. I’m at the point in the book where she’s at dinner with Tinker’s godmother. But, I can’t remember where Katey first met her. I guess I’ll have to go back and find that. I love the story and know I won’t want it to end. Plus, whoever heard of this author? I just happened to come across the book at Barnes and Noble. I didn’t hear or see anyone promoting it which really surprises me. Can you believe the author is a man?

    • Wendy on September 26, 2011 at 08:31

    Barbara: Katey first meets Anne Grandyn while dining with Tinker. The reason you haven’t heard of this author before is this is his debut novel 🙂 It has been getting a lot of attention on the blogs these days. I think Towles did a remarkable job getting inside a woman’s head! Glad you are enjoying the book.

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