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
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
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.
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – Emily Dickinson
I really enjoyed reading Rules of Civility. It seems like it would make a great movie that I would jump to see. The novel is really a great description of life in Manhattan in 1938. I loved the way the author brought in so many little details about music and books and movies that are our legacy from that period of time.
Also, the story is a good one. It has a lot of tension built in about what is going to happen to the main character Katy and her roommate, Eve. I like the way the book opens when Katy is a grown woman looking back at that year in her life. It is an opening that adds to the dramatic tension because the reader really wants to know about this T. Gray fellow she sees in the photos in the exhibit she???s viewing in the beginning. Right now it???s reminding me of the opening of The Kitchen House, which is really an event at the end of the book chronologically, but it makes you wonder all the way through about the explanation for that event. That???s a good literary device!
Another fun thing for me about the book is all the ways that it evokes The Great Gatsby. It is fun to try and figure out all the various comparisons. And there are quite a few other literary references, too, that I loved. Thoreau, Ulysses ("Yes, yes, yes..." ), Dickens... and more.
I would have given it 5 stars except for me the middle section of the book seemed to go on too long or sort of languish in details and a string of unrelated events. The book is basically covering only a period of one year. In the middle it seemed to me like several years had gone by because of this string of events. These events were interesting, but I just didn???t think they worked toward moving the plot along. The book picked up again, however, and had a satisfying latter half and ending.
If you enjoy truly eloquent writing, you will be glad to find Amor Towles. Wonderful turns of phrase, a delightful recreation of an interesting era, three dimensional characters. I will be watching for his next offereing.
I really enjoyed this book. The story was easy to follow, plenty of interest and well written. The reader was also excellent. Highly recommend to women. Don't think the guys will care for this one much.
I could taste the martinis, hear the jazz and feel the 1930's NYC pavement under my feet. I enjoyed the writing, the story and the narrator. I had to listen to this book a second time, which I hardly ever do. As I read this book, I wondered how my life would have been different in the 1930's as a woman, and what choices I would have made. There were many paths in this book, many ways that people were true to themselves.
I read this because my friend recommended it. From the love story to the delightful characters to the enjoyable way it is written, I really enjoyed it. The narrator did a nice job with the voices. There were a lot of characters and some jumping around in time, but it was easy to keep it all straight.
I could have sworn this book was written by a woman, but there you go! Amor Towles channels Wharton from time to time in this very-well written period piece. Some may consider it a little slow-moving, but please stick with it: the second half moves a little better than the first.
Rebecca Lowman gives a fine performance too. All-in-all, a welcome addition to my Library and well worth a credit.
i didn't read the print version but the performance was pitch perfect.
there are so many crystal-perfect moments in this book, i can't even choose when asked to pick 'one of the most memorable moments'. meeting tinker, the accident, katey getting her hair colored and buying the dress to wear on her birthday, katey and tinker in the cabin, katey and tinker down in his brother's tenement apartment....i could go on and on.
katey, katey, katey.
my crystalline year.
this is literature. the book sings, it buzzes, it offers metaphors that are at once original and so spot on, they're like poetry of old. a perfect marriage of poetry and prose, of plot and voice, of intellectual experience and emotional journey. everything i've read since has paled...and much that i've read before has, too.
The story grabs you from the opining scene. It is beautifully written. The character have depth. The story spans decades in NYC and gives a glimpse of the world of the rich and those who aspired to it.
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