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
As an Audible Editor I listen for a living! British classics, YA novels, speculative fiction, and anything quirky, fascinating, or heart-wrenching.
Amor Towles’ debut novel turned me inside out. It was hands down my pick for best novel of 2011. I fell in love with it for so many reasons. The atmosphere that the author creates is lush and beautiful, even though it evokes a grimy and cutthroat city. The characters feel both real and relatable, yet totally unattainable. You look up to them without losing faith in them. The prose is crisp, clear, and smart. There are so many lines from this novel that have stuck with me. “Old times… if you’re not careful they’ll gut you like a fish” has been quoted on numerous occasions. But above all else this is a love letter to New York City. As a New Yorker who recently moved to the suburbs this novel made me homesick, even though I never lived in the 1930s (the era of this novel). But it captures the timeless nature of New York – all the yearning and striving, glittering and glowing. You feel your feet on the sidewalk when you listen to this book.
Sometimes it is hard to follow an audiobook with a lot of different characters, but not this time. The interesting mixture of people springs to life, without the accents being overly done. The characters develop in unexpected directions, but maintain their integrity. It starts as a poor working girl falls in love with rich boy story, but it is actually a much more complex tale of human emotions. The different layers of plot keep you guessing to the very end. Well worth the read!
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.
I did not expect a gripping story after reading the synopsis. It surprised me with more action than I've expected. The focus of the book is still an internal life of a smart, gentle young woman and her coming of age in NYC in late 1930s.
It is beautifully written, the characters are nicely developed. You feel like you are reading one of the great classics the main heroine admires so much, but with a very modern twist to it.
If you like Jane Austin and Charles Dickens, this is a book for you.
This is a book lovers book! Listen and you will appreciate what I mean. While the narration is excellent-the writing is superb. I hope this is only the first of many to come just like it from Mr. Towles. I suspect in my listening that I got a sense of New York in mid -dpression as it really was. Thanks to Amor and Rebecca for making me fall for Gotham and for its darling Katie!
Ph.D. Psychologist and Coach
This book conveys tone, character and mood in ways that call to mind The Great Gatsby, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar. It is great fun. But deep. And an anthem to New York City in 1938. I predict that this tale of young Katy Kontent will become a best seller and a classic.
The last novel I felt this way about was "The Help".
living in los angeles I drive a lot, so audio books save me from a lot of frustration!
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.
Love to read, and Audible has made the two-hour daily commute enjoyable!
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.
Reader, Listener, Optimist
This novel successfully took me to a distant and unfamiliar place and time. When I'm on the streets of New York these days, my mind's eye is often looking for the past, imagining the millions who've walked on every sidewalk or lived in any one of the scores of small apartments. In a place that has so many people, most of them transient, I'm fascinated by all of the life that must have taken place on a given spot.
Armor Towles' novel about one young woman's experiences of Manhattan in the late 30's illustrates what life there might have been like. Other reviewers have said it may not be a perfect picture of the city or it's people at that time, but it is a delightfully credible and believable story.
this is one of those transporting books that you wish would never end. The beauty of the prose is stunning - the characters fully formed and sympathetic, and there's a winner of a tale told as well. The best part of this book for me were the descriptions of New York in a time so distinctly different from our own. The narrator is pitch perfect, I'm going to seek her out again too!
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