Rules of Civility
1938 was a watershed year for 25-year-old Katey Kontent, the straight-talking narrator of Amor Towles engaging debut novel, Rules of Civility. Taking its title from a slim volume of 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation by the young George Washington, the novel follows the impact a chance New Year’s Eve encounter has on Katey’s life.
Katey and her roommate Eve meet Tinker Grey, who seemed to have been “raised in the company of money and manners” on New Year’s Eve of 1937. This chance encounter is the catalyst for a year of surprising changes for Katey, a second-generation Russian immigrant who grew up in Brighton Beach. Street smart yet well-read, Katey is eking out a living in a secretarial pool at the start of 1938. By year’s end, she has penetrated cafe society and the world of publishing. She has loved and lost. And, she has made the choices that will set the course for the rest of her life.
Towles pitch-perfect narrative moves seamlessly from Wall Street to the “camps” of the Adirondacks, from posh Manhattan apartments in doorman buildings to one-room walk-ups, from Greenwich Village jazz clubs to society “fandangos” in Oyster Bay, Long Island. It’s a New York world that isn’t, in the end, so very different from the world of today.
Katey, from the wrong side of the tracks, initially — and wilfully — misinterprets Tinker when he speaks the truth:
Tinker answered relying on the ellipses of the elite. He was from Massachusetts; he went to college in Providence; and he worked for a small firm on Wall Street –– that is, he was born in the Back Bay, attended Brown, and now worked at the bank that his grandfather founded.
Katey thinks that Tinker’s copy of Washington’s Rules of Civility — which is included as an Appendix to the novel — is a genteel affectation but, as it turns out:
For Tinker Grey, this little book wasn’t a series of moral aspiration — it was a primer on social advancement. A do-it-yourself charm school. . . What a rube Katherine Kontent had been.
New York City is a forgiving place, where dreams can be chased and where people continue to reinvent themselves. But Katey will discover that acts of reinvention don’t always outpace the past. “That’s the problem with being born in New York. . . You’ve got no New York to run away to.” Katey couldn’t run away, but she could make choices. The heartbreaking truth is that Katey has no doubt that she made the right choice in 1938, although she knows that “right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”
Rules of Civility is a beautifully written, captivating read. Katey, Tinker, and a host of other artfully drawn characters will linger with you long after the story’s end.
Rules of Civility is available at amazon.com and at your favorite NY bookstores.