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Book Review - Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (2011)

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This month, my Book Club chose for discussion the novel entitled “Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles. The book is in such great demand at the library that I was able to obtain only the Audio version. This was a new experience for me and allowed me to appreciate the mastery of beautiful prose that Amor Towles possesses as the novel is read aloud.

Reminiscent of “The Great Gatsby,” as the novel is set in the Jazz Age in New York City in 1938, “Rules of Civility” has already been contracted to go on film in the near future. It is the story of Katey Kontent (accent on the second syllable) who moves to the City at age 25 to join a secretarial pool at a law firm. Katey’s charm, good looks and personality propel her very soon into the higher echelon of New York society and business as she accepts a job as personal assistant to the editor of Conde Nast Magazine.

Prior to this good fortune, Katey and her boarding house roommate, Eva Ross, head for a Greenwich Village jazz bar on New Year’s Eve with three dollars to spend. Eva flirts with a man at the next table who joins the girls for the remainder of the evening. Tinker Grey, elegantly dressed, is a chance encounter who reshapes the lives of the two girls he has befriended on New Year’s Eve.

Both Katey and Eva are attracted to Tinker. By chance once again, the three are involved in an automobile accident with Tinker as the driver and Eva in the passenger seat. Katey, in the back seat, was not injured, nor was Tinker. Eva, whose face was scarred, required a long recuperation time for several injuries. Tinker invited Eva to stay at his luxurious apartment during this time. They became a couple and traveled to Europe together.

Although Katey had fallen hard for Tinker and had reason to believe he had feelings for her, she had to look elsewhere for social activities and managed to have many male friends who escorted her about. It was also during this time that she moved up the professional ladder at Conde Nast.


The greater part of this story is told in flashback, as the opening scene takes place almost thirty years later, in 1966, as Katey and her husband visit an art exhibit in the City. The reader is not told at this point who Katey’s husband is, and is left to imagine which of her suitors had won her. The narrative then becomes Katey’s reminiscences of her younger days when she first moved to New York. The remembrance embraces just one year, New Year’s Eve of 1937 to the end of the year 1938. The story allows the reader to experience the sights and sounds of New York City during that legendary era.

Why is the novel entitled “The Rules of Civility”? George Washington, in his youth, composed a treatise of proper behavior for a young man wishing to be accepted in society. Tinker Grey possessed a copy of this guide called “The Rules of Civility” and apparently used it as his bible for getting ahead in the world.

The reader may be astounded to discover that Tinker is not the person he projects himself to be. The story may have more to say about Tinker’s effect on other people than Katey’s attempt to rise in the professional world in the New York City of that time.

I look forward to know what the film industry will do with this story. There are so many nuances, hidden meanings, and lessons to be learned. It is hoped that the transition will contain all that the novel attempts to express.

George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior
Amazon Price: $6.95 $4.42 Buy Now
(price as of Aug 19, 2014)


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