A chance encounter with a handsome banker in a jazz bar on New Year's Eve 1938 catapults Wall Street secretary Katey Kontent into the upper echelons of New York society, where she befriends a shy multi-millionaire, an Upper East Side ne'er-do-well, and a single-minded widow.
—Ugh. Tinker brought home all these novels by women as if that’s what I needed to get me back on my feet. He’s surrounded my bed with them. It’s as if he’s planning to brick me in. Isn’t there anything else?
Rules of Civility left me cold. I did not hate it, I did not like, I certainly did not love it as much as other people, including a lot of readers whose reviews I value, loved this book.
I don't even know whether it was the detached voice of Katey Kontent that made me feel nothing about anything in this book or whether it was the embellished detail of 1930s jazziness that got on my nerves and made me look hard for another aspect of the book that I could get into. Something like a plot or an interesting character. Or at least one that did not feel like a cardboard cut-out.
I may have detested F.S. Fitzgerald's main characters, but at least they were memorable. I may have disliked Evelyn Waugh's tone and snobbishness, but at least his books carried an air of authenticity by attempting to be satire.
I don't even know what the book was trying to do.
Nope, Rules of Civility just did not work for me.
Rules of Civility opens in 1966, when a woman unexpectedly spots a familiar face in the photos on display at an art opening and finds herself remembering 1938, the remarkable year when she knew its owner. At 25, Katey (originally Katya) Kontent (accent on the second syllable) had already made her way out of the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and into the secretarial pool of a Lower Manhattan law firm, and was getting to know her city better in the company of her roommate, Midwestern transplant Evelyn (originally Evie) Ross. When the girls crossed paths with Tinker (originally Theodore) Grey a few hours before the start of 1938 and they all share a New Year’s toast to “getting out of ruts,” they had no idea that the end of the year would find them all in very different places.
Personal reinvention has long been part of the mythos of New York City, and it’s a primary theme of the novel; the title comes from a list of “instructions for living” that George Washington compiled for himself, and which serves as a personal guidebook for Tinker. Eve and Tinker’s purposeful reinventions have effects and repercussions for Katey, shaping and redirecting her own less calculated self-making. 1938 is a year in which Katey experiences much of New York life for the first time, and she gets the opportunity to choose which aspects of it she wants to carry forward. She works hard and well, she’s wry and observant, she’s smart, independent, and open to taking calculated risks...and she never goes anywhere without a book. I don’t think she was created to be instantly lovable, but I found her thoroughly engaging and would have been happy to follow her story through decades, rather than just one year (although we do get an epilogue).
But having said that, I rather hope there won’t be a sequel; as much as I adored Katey, I felt that Rules of Civility told the story it meant to tell in full, and told it well. Like its protagonist, Amor Towles’ debut novel is assured, smart, and well-observed, and openly wears its mid-20th-century influences. Audiobooks can amplify weaknesses in writing, but aside from an over-reliance on similes, I didn’t find many here. Rebecca Lowman managed to give distinct voices to nearly every character, and her interpretation of Katey--and her city--sounded perfect to my ears. Rules of Civility is distinctly and proudly a New York story, with a distinctly, proudly New York cast of characters, and I was thoroughly immersed in its world.
This is one novel I wish I’d listened to in audiobook – and I may try to get it in audio just so that I can. Towles has chosen to set his social study in carefree late 1930s Manhattan, choosing as his heroine a witty, smart, ahead of her time daughter of a Russian immigrant, Katya (now Katey) Kontent. Katey lives in Mrs Martingale’s boarding house with Evey Ross, and the two of them go out for New Year’s Eve on 1937 and befriend Tinker Grey, a young socialite banker. An awkward double romance develops but when Evey is disabled in a winter accident, Tinker throws his lot in with her. Katey moves on through New York society but every road seems to lead her back to Tinker eventually.
Towles has chosen to frame his story through the perspective of Katey as an older woman, reminded of the escapades of her youth by a photographic exhibition she attends with her husband. The first person narrative is slightly limiting, but by having Katey as the sensible one and Evey as the one whom trouble follows, we do of course get an interesting story. And this is an era with which I am entirely unacquainted! Most of my reading is set in pre-1900 or 1960+. The glamour and optimism of the late 30s in the USA, Manhattan before cell phones and yellow taxis and fear of terrorism, even the immigrant experience of the USA (it's only really in Daughter of Fortune and Snow Falling on Cedars that I have run across it before) - all are new to me in literature and they were wonderful.
One of the things I love about reading on the Kindle is how easy it is to highlight passages and then come back to them when I am writing the review. Towles has a beautiful writing style, using words and phrases like "fabdabulous", "the wine was older than me" and "a burgeoning taste for flawlessness". Some of the ones I marked as I went through Rules of Civility:
On starting on page 104 of a Hemingway novel:
"Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn't fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway's books this way"
"He felt elaborately around the bag until he brought out a cinnamon donut perched upright on his fingertips. Which, as it turns out, is all it takes to secure a place in my affections."
"It's terrific, I admitted. But I can't help thinking how much better it would look on you, given the color of your hair. If I may be so bold, Miss Kontent, the color of my hair is available to you on the second floor."
"At peace with the notion that he would join them soon enough in that circle of Elysium reserved for plot and substance and the judicious use of the semicolon" possibly my favourite book quote ever.
Well worth the read. Get your hands on a copy if you can, and even better if it's in audio!
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.
The year 1938 had been one in which four people of great color and character had held welcome sway over my life. And here it was December 31, 1940, and I hadn't seen a single one of them in over a year.
It is 1938, the Great Depression is nearing an end but the premonitions of WWII are on the horizon. On New Years Eve 1937, 25-year-old Katey and her best friend, Eve Ross, both from the same boarding house, decide to celebrate the holiday together. When the two encounter a dapper young man, Theodore "Tinker" Grey, Eve calls dibs but over time it seems that Katey and Tinker have a stronger connection. As these three meet on and off during the next couple of months, the number of friends grow.
Having read and loved this author's subsequent novel, The Gentleman in Moscow, I was torn whether or not to read his first, much different, first book. I'm thrilled that Mr. Towles did not let me down. I believe that his works will be considered classics in fifty years or so. Damn! Can this man write. What a gift for the metaphor. Examples I highlighted are:
After the Crash, you couldn't hear the bodies hitting the pavement, but there was a sort of communal gasp and then a stillness that fell over the city like snow.
Her last-minute dress was a red silk number with a scooped neckline, and she had apparently traded up to her best support bra--because the tops of her breasts could be seen from fifty feet in a fog.
The author so clearly describes the setting, mood and the characters so well that I easily found myself walking in the snow of Greenwich Village, entering jazz clubs and becoming one of Katety's friends. I'm looking forward to his next book.
This was really beautifully written and just kind of a narrative/snapshot of Miss Katey Kontent’s life in the 30’s. It was written in such a way that you could picture it all in your mind’s eye and the atmosphere of the time surrounds you. It’s the jazz clubs, Rolls Royce’s, and taxi cabs, the fancy penthouses to the women only boardinghouses. Love the end when she reads all the Rules of Civility by, George Washington I think some of these are still very relevant today!
Rebecca Lowman narrated this audiobook and did a really good job at all the different characters.
This was a good book that is getting a lot of buzz right now and I think it deserves it if you like historical fiction, the late 30’s and strong female characters give this one a go!
Amor Towles plays with this idea in his impressive debut novel “Rules of Civility” (2011). Spanning the year 1938 in New York City, the story brings together three attractive young people looking ahead to a promising post-Depression future. Our narrator, Katey Kontent, grew up in a lower middle-class family in the city, while Eve has a more well-to-do family back in the Midwest. They work in a secretarial pool.
One night they meet Tinker Grey, handsome, well-tailored and well-mannered. Eve claims him as her own, even though Tinker appears to prefer Katey. Yet when they go out at night, it is always the three of them together. Then Eve is disfigured in a traffic accident while Tinker is driving. Out of guilt, he takes responsibility for her care and moves her into his apartment, while Katey becomes more distant.
What begins with the suggestion of a love triangle evolves into something else, and this something else relates to, of all things, 110 "Rules of Civility," which George Washington studied as a young man striving to make a success of himself in the world. Tinker, too, has studied these rules, and Katey comes to realize the rules hide a different Tinker Grey. (The book includes the 110 rules in an appendix.)
Towles writes with wit, subtlety and grace while revealing that Tinker is not alone in hiding a true self behind good manners.
The setting is Manhattan in the late 1930's. The threat of the Second World War is in the distant future and life, for the most part, is good. The reader sees what New York City was like during that era through the eyes of a young woman surviving quite well on her own in that large metropolis. The author did a fantastic job describing the culture of the young and carefree in an exciting city - so much so that the city takes on a character all of its own. Cocktails, bars, apartments, neighbourhoods and iconic buildings all figure prominently in this book. If you love the romance and cultural aura of New York City, you'll find plenty of it here.
I really liked the protagonist, Kate Kontent. She-s a well-written character - smart, sassy, independent and with a good dose of subtle humour thrown in. She's isn't perfect; I picked up hints of envy in some situations and loneliness in others. It's not that much was said, but rather shown (which I think is one of the trickiest talents a writer can develop and Amor Towles has it in spades). But Kate isn't a wallflower; she acts on her instincts so that when she isn't happy about something she takes steps to change it. And this is one of the reasons why the story moved along quickly and flowed so well. Dialogue between Kate and her contemporaries was also well done.
I also really liked the portrayal of women in this era. It seems that women in the 1930's are much further along in society than their later counterparts. The freedom of the earlier era was gone by the 1950's as the standard of a woman's worth was depicted with the iconic house dress-wearing female staying home and having babies. But perhaps that was the sign of prosperity. In any case, this freedom surprised me too - I've always assumed that any era before the 1950's had to be a worse one for women in general, but I didn't pick that up from this novel at all.
I loved this book because I like NYC and I found the 1930's era so interesting to read about. But to enjoy Rules of Civility you don't have to like those things too because it offers so much more. This book is a well-written, well-rounded great story from an author that I'll be putting on my must-read list for future books.
Katey is a New Yorker, born of Russian stock, and just at the beginning of her career – starting out as a secretary and rooming at Mrs Martindale’s boarding house with her roommate Eve. Eve is blonde and from Iowa, moved to the city to find fame and fortune. New Year’s Eve 1937 sees them in a jazz club down to their last nickels when a tall striking man in a cashmere coat walks in the door. Eve bags him and thus the girls meet Theodore ‘Tinker’ Grey and one of the seminal years of Kate’s life will begin. (ARC supplied by Amazon Vine).
Although Eve ends up with Tinker, you constantly get the feeling that he’d rather be with Katey; but after a car crash a few weeks later in which Tinker was driving and Eve was injured, he felt his duty was to look after Eve. We follow this year of ups and downs with all three of them, through Katey’s eyes. Katey is the archetypal good girl made good – we see her elevated from the typing pool to Editor’s assistant, she’s not afraid to work hard, and is well read. Katey is not averse to having fun though, and with Tinker off limits, she nearly finds love with the lovely Wallace Wolcott. He may have New England money, but he needs a real purpose in life and leaves to go fight in Spain. Meanwhile Tinker and Eve are doing their best impressions of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in Europe. Katey remains puzzled by Tinker though – there are things about him that don’t ring true, and it will take the end of Eve and his relationship, and some hard truths that Katey discovers to find out the truth at the end of the year.
Maybe it’s because New Yorkers appear to live and work in a totally faster gear to the rest of us, but it felt as if there was a lifetime crammed into this novel – but what a life! The period setting was irresistible to me, full of jazz, cocktails and parties. Katey and Eve may have done well to land in the set with which they mix, but Katey never forgets where she comes from, having her feet firmly on the ground – well, for most of the time. Seeing it all through her eyes shows the others’ bad behaviour for what it was, but I almost shed a tear for poor Wallace though, who hadn’t a single bad bone in his body.
This novel had more than a hint of 'Mad Men' about it for me, done 'Great Gatsby' style. Katey reminded me very much of Peggy Olsen in the TV series, whereas Tinker and Eve could have been Dick Diver and Nicole from 'Tender is the Nigh' – doomed from the start. Hearing the story from Eve’s point of view would have been terribly different and frankly boring; Katey is by far the more interesting character, and her story makes for a fine debut novel indeed.
I really enjoyed this book. It's portrayal of New York City during the late 30s, when some people were living a high flying life untouched by the Depression and others were struggling to make ends meet, feels authentic, and Towles uses it not only as a backdrop for the story, but as a major plot element and motivation for the characters. Katie is so real, thanks in part to the stark, simple language Towles uses to describe her world. There is nothing flowery or soaring here, but this actually makes the novel stronger and Katie's life choices more real. I felt like I really went on a life journey with Katie over this story of a year in her life, and that I was as shocked by the revelations in the novel as she was. And to me this is the sign of a really great novel--a piece of fiction I really get lost in and grow with the characters.
I would recommend this novel to fans of literary fiction. There's a reason this was one of the most buzzed about books of the summer! It really is that powerful, and a piece of literature you won't soon forget.
From the very first pages, I was entranced by this story and by Katey herself although she takes a while to show through fully. So much of the initial narrative is about Eve and Tinker and their strange triangle. Eve starts out as a typical flirt, but oh does she end mysteriously and I really liked Towles for that. He could have taken the easy way out with her character, making her vapid and materialistic and even though that's what we think of her at first, our impression is corrected. In an almost direct inverse proportion so is our impression of Tinker. Too good to be true.
I think one of the reasons I was entranced (besides the writing which I'll get to) is Katey herself. She's everything I have never been and once aspired to. She's quietly confident, witty, well-read and fearless. She sees clear to what she wants and puts her life together to achieve it. She quickly figures out what is important, what isn't and how to extricate herself from unwanted entanglements. She has talent and isn't afraid to bet on it. She leads with her strength. I can't describe her better than Tinker did so here -
"Right from the first, I could see a calmness in you - that sort of inner tranquility that they write about in books, but that almost no one seems to possess. I was wondering to myself: How does she do that? And I figured it could only come from having no regrets - from having made choices with...such poise and purpose. It stopped me in my tracks a little. And I just couldn't wait to see it again." p. 229
That's one of the things I loved about this book. Not only did I want to see how the many entanglements would work out, but I was also intrigued as the layers of personality peeled. No one was quite as they seemed. Wallace Wolcott should have been an overbearing boor, but instead he was slightly unsure of himself, sensitive and astute about the personalities around him. Anne should have been wise, sophisticated and without blemish, but she was frail, proud and slightly amoral. Tinker had the most polished disguise though and tried to make it his own. I was glad when he dropped it and forged his own life.
The writing was pretty marvelous. Mostly these days, I skim. There. I said it. And I think most writers write for that anyway. There's very little to savor and very little to think about in terms of the choices the author made to convey an idea. Even though there were a lot of similes, most of them were apt and none of them bothered me. The tone and style were of a piece and nothing jarred or took me out of the story. Here's an example -
"Part of the joy of Dicky was the ableness with which he flitted from moment to moment and topic to topic like a sparrow in a hurricane of crumbs." p. 280
Even a slightly sidelined character like Dicky has a full and rounded personality. The paper airplanes and the note signed Peter Pan made me wistful to know someone to like that and how infectious his adventurous nature must have been. When Wallace's Christmas present arrived, now from beyond the grave, I very nearly teared up. Yes, the dialog is a tad too perfectly sharp and witty, but like the movies from the same time period, it seduces with that dialog and make you wish your world had such clarity and daring. It may not be true-to-life, but I love it anyway and it's part of the piece, the atmosphere that Towles delivers so well. If Katey stammered and stuttered and had a thin vocabulary, the story would not nearly be so vibrant. And who wants our heroes to have feet of clay anyway?
Another wonderful part of the story is the setting and the time. No I'm not a city-dweller nor do I even like cities, but New York in the 1930s had a glamour about it that is difficult to encapsulate. Certainly it is greater than the sum of its parts. However, though I don't think he's old enough to have lived in it then, Towles conveys it very well. It's the new buildings. The jazz clubs. The music. The restaurants. The taxis. The lights. The air of lightness that came, I suspect partly, from the repeal of Prohibition. The fashion. The freedom and possibility for women. All of it is glossy, exciting and romantic. He doesn't get too sentimental though, describing a lot of what by contrast is the short end of that same stick. The working class, the working poor, immigrants and coloreds (as termed in the 1930s) all make an appearance. And Katey, after all, is a working stiff too, and lives in first a boarding house for young women and then a dingy little apartment with windows so drafty she has to cram the cracks with old underwear.
Through all these things though, Katey is serene and despite my cringing at the fact that there was a preface set far in the future of the main story, it worked very well to frame the story and the characters within it. Oh and at the end, all 110 of Washington's Rules of Civility are reprinted. Like many of the other books mentioned throughout Katey's story, this one is also real. How marvelous.
I also enjoyed the glamour and the hard lessons learned by the characters throughout the book. There is a strong story line brushing up against jazz and the artistic life in New York.
Overall, there was strong character development and a wonderful story line. I would definitely recommend this book, especially to those who enjoy historical fiction
This is a book about choices and consequences, relationships and life. It is 1938 in New York City, when two young working girls, Katey and Evie, meet Tinker Grey, a banker. Katey narrates this eventful year in their lives and tells the story of the years following.
The book takes its name from Washington's 'Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation', a copy of which Tinker kept as a keepsake from his mother, with an aspirational list composed by the founder in his teenage years: . . . There were 110 of them! And over half were underlined – one adolescent sharing another's enthusiasm for propriety across a chasm of 150 years.
The book is punctuated by pictures from the 'Many Are Called' exhibit, portraits taken by hidden camera by Walker Evans in the late 1930s, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966.
The Rules and the Portraits frame the story, but the focal point in this picture is this group of friends superimposed on the City. ...from this vantage point Manhattan was simply so improbable, so wonderful, so obviously full of promise – that you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.
This is a character-driven story, with sharp writing, characters written with insight, and a superbly descriptive setting. I loved it. (4.4 stars)
This book is beautifully written with smart, snappy dialogue and an intriguing plot. I was put in mind of the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I would most certainly recommend this excellent novel.
I spent several hours in the car falling under the spell of Rebecca Lowman as she carefully, meticulously, and with just the right amount of enthusiasm, narrated the adventures of Katey Kontent and her friends, Tinker and Eve. I'm already in love with this period of history (1938), and Amor Towles captured the elegance, refined nature, and beauty in a way that was simple, understated, and beautiful.
As I listened to the story I relaxed - my mind filled with images that were last evoked by reading The Great Gatsby, and I giggled with girlish delight upon meeting some of the most well-rounded characters I've been introduced to. This is such a quiet, unassuming book, but it's filled with a story that leaves no detail left unsaid while not wishing to presume upon you to say them.
If you picked up on book, or just one audio even, this year - just one, I'd recommend this be put on the top of your list of choices. It's a beautiful book and I just cannot praise it enough.
What an excellent debut. I actually found it hard to believe that this was Tovey's first novel as he has done such a believable job in evoking 1930's New York, with its sense of frivolity and decadence, as well as creating an array of memorable characters that the reader comes to care about. I really can't wait to see what he comes up with next.
Set in Manhattan, the book is narrated by Katey Kontent, a well-read secretary who along with her beautiful friend Eve gets pulled into the glamorous Manhattan social scene after encountering dapper Tinker Grey in a jazz bar one New Years Eve. The book follows the turbulent lifestyles of the three characters over the next few years and mingles in New York's high society as the US teeters on the brink of depression.
Initially we meet Katey in the 1960's as she explores an art gallery with her husband, then the plot jumps back in time thirty years and we come to understand Katey's life then and now. Generally, Katey has a strong voice as a narrator, though I have to concede that perhaps the reader doesn't get to know her as well as they might hope as she does seem quite distant from what's going on a lot of the time. You actually learn a bit more about her friends and associates than you do about her. I personally think it was the secondary characters that remained stronger in this book- including roguish Tinker and the gentlemanly Wallace. Though I have to say, not a lot happens in the novel plot-wise, so be aware of that and don't expect a fantastically paced plot. It is definitely more of a character driven book, though for me that remained part of its charm, and it was most certainly easy-reading.
Overall this was an engaging story with a likeable cast and a few good twists to keep the reader interested. If you are looking for an atmospheric, decadent read that will transport you to another place, give this a go- and make sure you have a cocktail handy and some jazz music on standby to really help you soak up the atmosphere!
From the opening pages, this novel sets you at ease with a witty and intelligent narrator in Katey Kontent who proves a fascinating guide through her life and various social circles during 1938. New York City during this era is brilliantly evoked and filled with a cast of characters who feel familiar immediately and yet pique your interest as they pass through Katey's life. With delectable language, imagery, and exploration of themes, Towles creates a novel to be savoured like the many gin martinis poured throughout.
It was interesting reading following a set of NYers in the years following the Great Depression to the US entering WWII. The lives of the main characters intersecting and interacting left me with a little bit of Seinfeld "a show about nothing" feeling. The appendices listing all of George Washington's Rules of Civility was a nice touch.