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Rules of Civility: A Novel | [Amor Towles]

Rules of Civility: A Novel

Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising 25-year-old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.
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Audible Editor Reviews

Amor Towles is approaching 50 and making a living as a principal at an investment firm. One wouldn’t expect his debut novel to be told from the perspective of a wise-cracking young lady of 25, but Towles is good at surprises. Katherine Kontent (“like the state of being”) is a legal secretary trying to climb the social ladder and squeeze all the juice out of Manhattan. She is the only slightly less seductive sidekick to Eve, who leaves her wealthy family behind to act like a mash-up of Christopher Isherwood's Sally Bowles and Truman Capote's Holly Golightly. It's the Upper East Side in the winter of 1939 — ripe for ripping off F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway or whatever writer you prefer from the era of roaring alcoholism, but Amor Towles doesn’t take the bait.

Neither does narrator Rebecca Lowman, who has good fun with the zippy dinner conversations while managing to keep Kate's sporting sense of dignity intact as both lovers and day jobs threaten to collapse her up-and-comingness. Lowman, who has a long string of television series bit parts from Will & Grace to Law & Order to her credit, slips easily into the everywoman role and adds notes of believable determination to our heroine's struggle for better circumstances. Who will marry Tinker Grey and who will get the promotion at Conde Nast are interesting plots, but none of this is the surprise — the plot surprise is all the more devastating.

Towles gives us some glitter, but he doesn't gloss, and that is the biggest surprise. The women in this book are fraught with the tremendous burden of appearing charming but unintelligent, and Lowman lets in enough sharp tones to give their dilemmas and revelations a substantial bite. Towles has fleshed out these familiar archetypes in a unique direction, so much more rich and thick than the flat characters with which novels of this time period are usually laden. —Megan Volpert

Publisher's Summary

A sophisticated and entertaining debut novel about an irresistible young woman with an uncommon sense of purpose.

Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising 25-year-old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.

The story opens on New Year's Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne'er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.

Elegant and captivating, Rules of Civility turns a Jamesian eye on how spur of the moment decisions define life for decades to come. A love letter to a great American city at the end of the Depression, readers will quickly fall under its spell of crisp writing, sparkling atmosphere and breathtaking revelations, as Towles evokes the ghosts of Fitzgerald, Capote, and McCarthy.

Hear why Rules of Civility is Our Book of the Summer.

©2011 Amor Towles (P)2011 Penguin

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

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  •  
    Reader USA 07-30-11
    Reader USA 07-30-11 Member Since 2011
    HELPFUL VOTES
    199
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    "Overwrought"

    Although book has good concept, I got bored. The writing is like someone who got an A in a college writing course and then uses every single technique in the first 10 pages. The writing is overwrought with too much emphasis on "clever" and "descriptive" use of language. Very annoying. Also the narrator's style emphasized words so much it got more annoying. Too "precious" too "madcap". The theme begins on an interesting note (late 1930's NYC) but then just seems like a private privileged (meaningless) world. This book did not meet my expectations. Sorry.

    68 of 84 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Michele SEATTLE, WA, United States 08-13-12
    Michele SEATTLE, WA, United States 08-13-12 Member Since 2009

    I'm a designer (interiors and graphics) with an English degree. I recovered my love of reading after a disastrous bout with grad school.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Bright Young Things in a Dark World"

    My initial, but not my final, impression of this book was of a meticulously researched and carefully mannered romp. It's New York, 1938, and we start with two plucky and penurious heroines, one of whom is the narrator, making their way in the world. One finds her fortune and one finds her career, through the fulcrum of a wealthy young man who launches them into high society. (I am trying to avoid spoiling the plot, which is ingeniously constructed). For the first eighth of this book, Towles spins along on description and the introduction of characters. For a reader, the experience is like watching a black-and-white movie starring Carole Lombard AND Myrna Loy -- furs and jewels and snappy dialogue. The story deepens quite suddenly and absorbingly -- one really wants to know what happens next -- and doesn't let up until the last page. But for me, the real virtue of this book is the way the character of the narrator develops. This young woman comes into her own for the reader just as she does in her life, and proves to be both adept and charming in a completely unpretentious manner. I was very sorry to say goodbye.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Karen los angeles, CA, United States 01-13-12
    Karen los angeles, CA, United States 01-13-12 Member Since 2005

    living in los angeles I drive a lot, so audio books save me from a lot of frustration!

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Great debut! This one pays off in the end!"

    It took a while for me to warm up to this novel, but having finished it, I've come to the conclusion that its brilliant, despite the fact that the main character does seem a bit male for a woman. It appears to me that the author made a deliberate choice not to include her feelings, but his narrative skills make up for it. He's captured a time that has great appeal and glamor, and it all ties up expertly in the end.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rebecca Lakewood, CO, United States 11-05-11
    Rebecca Lakewood, CO, United States 11-05-11 Member Since 2009

    Love to read, and Audible has made the two-hour daily commute enjoyable!

    HELPFUL VOTES
    91
    ratings
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    82
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    Story
    "A pivotal year in 1930's Manhattan"

    A middle aged couple walking through a photography exhibit at MOMA in the 1960's when the wife is surprised by two photos of a friend from years ago. The rest of the book is a flashback for Katey Kontent of a golden, fast, sophisticated, pivotal year of her life.

    Wonderful characters (Katey, Evelyn Ross, Tinker Grey, Wallace, Anne Grandon, and many more). This novel is fabulously visual and with a tapestry of places, characters and books.

    Rebecca Lowman's narration was spot on. Many driveway moments with this book. I can't wait to see what Towles writes next.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Keisha Los Angeles, CA, United States 09-02-11
    Keisha Los Angeles, CA, United States 09-02-11 Member Since 2008
    HELPFUL VOTES
    126
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    "Great tone, setting and characters"

    I really enjoyed the tone of this book. The author brougth the city to life in it's pages. You could just picture these girls out and about around town just trying to figure it all out. I love this story of just an average girl who is anything but. I also like the little attention to detail that help you to conjure what life was like in NYC during the late 30's.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Susan Burlingame, CA, United States 08-06-11
    Susan Burlingame, CA, United States 08-06-11 Member Since 2007
    HELPFUL VOTES
    39
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    "Why all the fuss?"

    Based on the glowing reviews, I couldn't wait to download Rules of Civility: A Novel. Didn't take long to grasp that while the author had the skill to take the reader to another time and place, she couldn't deliver characters to care about, a plot, or anything that made me want to read on. Stuck to this book out of stubborness. About an hour from its end, it drones on in my ear as I type this. I wanted to like this book, and am sad that I can't recommend it to anyone.

    39 of 48 people found this review helpful
  •  
    B.J. Minneapolis, MN, United States 07-31-11
    B.J. Minneapolis, MN, United States 07-31-11 Member Since 2007

    I hear voices. But maybe that's because there's always an Audible book in my ear.

    HELPFUL VOTES
    1315
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    "Really satisfying listen."

    There's something about this book that reminded me of "Special Topics in Calamity Physics." The literary references don't populate every sentence, but there's certainly a marked respect for the great writers of the past. This is a satisfying listen. Though I've read a ton of historical fiction, I had never really contemplated the life of an "ordinary" woman in late 1930's NYC. As a warning, it might take a few minutes to get used to the narrator. She doesn't add anything to the story, but she stays out of its way and doesn't harm it.

    19 of 23 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Newman Needham, MA, United States 09-05-11
    Newman Needham, MA, United States 09-05-11 Member Since 2006
    HELPFUL VOTES
    7
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    3
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    "Not what I had hoped for"

    In the first few minutes I had reasons to eagerly anticipate this book. Sadly, it never lived up to my expectations. What was apparent to me is that the author lacked the grasp of what the 1930s were truly like, and, after the first anachronism ("para-legals" in 1938? They were still just "secretaries"--not even "assistants," as many are called now), I lost faith in the story as well as the Main Character, who told the story. Very much needed: fully fleshed out and believable characters throughout. Listing the "Rules" at the end? Silly. Even sillier that it was actually read aloud.

    6 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Trish Virginia 05-20-13
    Trish Virginia 05-20-13 Member Since 2005

    I have always loved to read, and now I really enjoy listening to my books as well!!

    HELPFUL VOTES
    108
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    "Beautifully Written!!"

    I loved this book, but it is not for everyone. It is a beautifully written novel, but is not really story-driven. The story is there, but it is not the story that kept me interested. I adored the wonderful, descriptive narrative--it's the kind you like to lose yourself in.

    This is a book best listened to free of distractions. I had trouble staying with all the detail while I was driving. I did much better when I listened while I was walking laps in the gym. The narrator did a wonderful job, and it was just a very pleasant and enjoyable eleven hours spent in another time and place.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    HunterJumper Atlanta, GA 04-29-12
    HunterJumper Atlanta, GA 04-29-12 Member Since 2009
    HELPFUL VOTES
    16
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    "Much better than the editor/publisher indicate"
    Any additional comments?

    In the Audible Editor's review and the Publisher's review, Katy Kontent is portrayed as a scheming, wise-cracking social climbing legal secretary in the 1930s. I must have read a different book. Yes she is looking for a better life and she is socializing in the upper echelons of New York society but that seems to be more by circumstance than design. Maybe the editors were judging her by the company she keeps but in doing so, they missed the boat.

    Kontent is a legal secretary from a Russian immigrant background who has a far more insightful, thoughtful view of life than the empty socialites in her crowd. In that context she is a far more interesting character than portrayed.

    This is one of the best books on tape I've purchased. It was beautifully written and narrated and I found it surprising that one reviewer dismissed it as "overwrought" - I disagree completely with that assessment. The imagery is beautiful and while some of the dialogue between her socialite friends is a bit superficial and silly, it was probably very accurate for that time in history and was a perfect frame for Kontent's own quiet and thoughtful demeanor.

    Absolutely one of the best books I've "read" in years.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
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