“Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility

I picked up this book at the recommendation of my daughter, who told me she read it in one day. While I didn’t find it so gripping that it was impossible to put down, I did find it engaging enough to hold my interest and keep reading — which was remarkable to me given the number of books I started recently that I couldn’t read beyond the first chapter. Going through somewhat of a dry spell with regard to reading fiction, I was happy to get out of the doldrums and be reassured that books could still give me the enjoyment they always have.

Rules of Civility is set in New York in the late 1930s, a time period that is so reminiscent of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald that it is impossible not to be reminded of it. Rules of Civility fares quite well in the comparison, and while it comes nowhere to achieving the classic status of The Great Gatsby, it is far from being a cheesy rip-off. It is extremely well written and strongly evocative, bringing vividly to life all the details of the Big Apple in the 30s — the people, the culture, the parties, the music, the smoking, the clothes — the overall milieu.

The story is told from the point of view of a 25 year old single girl, Katey Kontent, and of the most eventful year in her life, 1938. What sets it off is a chance meeting that she and her best friend and roommate, Eve, have with a wealthy, handsome banker, Tinker Grey, at a jazz bar on the last night of 1937. Both fall for him, but instead of a someway predictable storyline in which the “heroine” eventually gets the “hero,” the plot takes several twists and turns, including a car crash, a move to Los Angeles, a relationship between a wealthy older woman and a younger man, a friend who enlists in the war and is killed, and dropping out of high society to become a blue-color worker. In the course of that one year, Katey goes from becoming a secretary to the editor’s assistant of a high-profile magazine, and further leaves behind her working class roots by moving and socializing in the upper echelons of New York society.

I found Rules of Civility less of a story with a definite plot and more of an experience, an indepth look at what life in New York must have been like in the 1930s. The details are so rich and seem as authentic that it really makes the city and the characters come alive. Even more so than The Great Gatsby, I found that this book is inextricably tried to its setting, so for those who can’t get enough of reading about New York, this book is a must-read.

PS: And by the way, the title of the book comes from “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation,” a list of 110 rules compiled by George Washington as part of a school exercise when he was sixteen. They are used in Towles’ Rules of Civility as a reference by one of the key characters to appear refined in high society. To name the character would be giving too much away!

Rules of Civility
Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: June 2012

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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