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Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility (edition 2012)

by Amor Towles

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Title:Rules of Civility
Authors:Amor Towles
Info:Sceptre (2012), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library, ebooks

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Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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    Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (Limelite)
    Limelite: Another look at an ambitious woman making her own way in the world and with commentary on the society of her times.
  3. 01
    The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (trav)
    trav: Slightly different time period and tone, but the writing is very similar as are the dynamics. Both Rules of Civility and The Glass Room are very well written time-period books.

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This book was the November selection for my book club, and I really loved it! The characters were so well fleshed out, and there were layers to each of them. There were a lot of characters, yet all of them were invaluable to the story.

There were many little tidbits that I felt showed brilliant insight into the human condition.

My final word: I loved this book! The characters were so full and rich, that I mentioned at our book club that I could read additional books based on each of the other characters. Brilliant, sweeping, intriguing, fast moving. This is one grand tale! ( )
  nfmgirl2 | Feb 12, 2014 |
I had heard a lot about Rules of Civility in the book blogging world, and it was also continuously checked out from my library for about a year after it came out, so I had high expectations for it. However, somehow I was expecting something rather different from what it was. So in the end, while I mildly enjoyed reading it, I am not sure that I particularly liked it.

It follows a year in the life of 20-something Katey Kontent in 1938 New York City. She is a working-class girl who gets in with some upper crust crowds. The story of this year is framed by a prologue and epilogue that take place in the 1960s, when Katey goes to an art exhibit with her husband of photos of individuals on the subway in the 1930s, and sees two of someone she knew that year. I think that I liked this framing best of all in the book - it was well done and helped give a certain atmospheric sense of reminiscence to the book.

The story of the year of 1938 itself I found quite uncompelling. Even though it is told in the first person from Katey's point of view, the narrative seemed detached. I felt that I never really got a sense of who Katey really was, or what her intimate dreams and goals were. She just seemed to get swept along in the current of the people she spent time with, spending all her time staying out late, drinking, and going to parties. There were even a couple scenes of big parties out at a mansion on Long Island, which brought to mind The Great Gatsby. I never particularly liked or understood The Great Gatsby either so maybe it is no surprise that this story did not do much for me and I could not relate to it at all. The lifestyle described in this book remained too distant from anything I am familiar with; I think that a better book would manage to convince me of the lifestyle - perhaps by showing more of the inner lives of the characters, rather than the only a detached view of their outer lives. I actually found myself mildly bored at times in the narrative, because I really didn't care what happened to the characters.

So I cannot say that I particularly recommend this book. Partly it is perhaps due to my taste, but partly I think that there really are some flaws in the tone and writing that make it a less-than-compelling narrative. ( )
  sbsolter | Feb 6, 2014 |
"Let thy ceremonies in Courtesy be proper to the Dignity of his place with whom thou conversest for it is absurd to act the same with a Clown and a Prince."

Thus reads the 42nd entry in Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a list of social maxims put together by George Washington in his teenage years. This little volume of arcana figures heavily in Amor Towles’ debut novel, also titled Rules of Civility, as does the question of just who is a clown and who’s a prince. In New York of 1938, where old money, new money, and no money found themselves rubbing elbows in all sorts of surprising ways, the answer was not always evident. And that’s a large part of what makes this tale of social mores in the big city so much fun.

Towles’ heroine, Katey Kontent, embodies all the wonders of post-Depression class restlessness in New York. Born Katya, to Russian immigrant parents in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, she’s moved into a Manhattan boarding house, found a job typing in a downtown legal firm, and is on her way up. On New Year’s Eve, she and her roommate Eve Ross hit a Village jazz dive called the Hotspot to see out 1937 and see how far they can stretch their last three dollars. There, by chance, they meet a charming, enigmatic young man of means named Tinker Grey. And thus begins a year of ups and downs for Katey, loves and dalliances, career moves and social striving and not a few hard truths.

That two lovely young women who adopt an eligible fellow should find themselves in something of a triangle is no surprise, though the tension between them is tempered by friendship. And for a while, even as the attraction between Katey and Tinker simmers, the three have some good times running around the city, from the 21 Club to a Lower East Side underground joint called Chernoff’s, and it’s a toss-up as to which end of the social spectrum is more wonderful. My vote goes to Chernoff’s:

"…though it was popular with Russian gangsters it was also a gathering place for Russia’s competing political émigrés. On any given night you could find the two factions encamped on either side of the club’s insufficient dance floor. On the left were the goateed Trotskyites planning the downfall of Capitalism and on the right were the sideburned tsarist distaff dwelling in dreams of the Hermitage. Like all the rest of the world’s warring tribes, these two made their way to New York City and settled side by side. They dwelt in the same neighborhoods and the same narrow cafés where they could keep a watchful eye on one another."

Their delicate balance can’t last, of course, and is cut short by that that deus of all machinas, a car accident. Eve is badly injured, and Tinker, who was at the wheel, installs her in his apartment so he can care for her. Katey, ever resourceful, strikes out for a walkup apartment downtown, and so their stories truly begin. Each of them turns out to be full of surprises—nobody here is exactly who they seem to be. Tinker, who comes off as a winning but indecisive rich boy, is not exactly any of those things; and Eve, an appealing iconoclast at the book’s beginning, lets her physical scars turn her bitter. While Katey is everything you want in a protagonist, and does a fine job of carrying the story—she’s smart, literate, and pragmatic, with a dash of vulnerability beneath the snappy surface—she’s not immune to the temptations of class. Her father’s solid old-world values still resonate, but at the same time the crowd she falls in with, the young scions of old-money families and their Adirondack lodges, penthouses and parties, is seductive.

There’s a lot going on in Rules of Civility, not only love and betrayal and a young woman’s search for her own equilibrium over the course of one very eventful year, but the effervescence of prewar New York and the world beyond. Towles has a light touch with his historical context, giving us the portrait of an almost timelessly recognizable Manhattan:

"One night in April, I was standing in the Wall Street stop of the IRT waiting to hoi polloi home. It had been twenty minutes since the previous train and the platform was crowded with hats and sighs and roughly folded afternoon editions. On the ground nearby was an overstuffed valise bound with string. But for the absence of children, it could have been a way station in a time of war."

But the time of war is upon these young folk, even as they remain blissfully wrapped up in their own domestic dramas. A couple of the more idealistic fellows, of both high and low birth, ship out to do their part in the Spanish Civil War, and of course in retrospect we all know what a turning point 1938 was for the rest of the world, not just Katey Kontent.

Still, this is her story, and it’s a good one; any myopia is all in context. The supporting cast is stellar as well—we meet Ashcan School artists in dingy bars, women named Bitsy who ride horses, cutthroat editors of gossip magazines, manipulative rich widows, and a host of others. It’s all quite lively and evocative of the period, something like Dawn Powell without the ingrained cynicism. Arguably, though, the star of this book isn’t really Katey Kontent, but New York City itself. The sets where all this deft social interplay takes place—the grand hotels, the fire escapes of outer-borough tenements, the docks, the office buildings—are, in a way, the stars. Though Rules of Civility is strongly character-driven, there’s no getting around the fact that Towles has written a truly sparkling love letter to New York:

"As we sat there, dusk was falling and the lights of the city were coming on one by one in ways even Edison hadn’t imagined. They came on across the great patchwork of office buildings and along the cables of the bridges; then it was the street lamps and the theater marquees, the headlights of the cars and the airplane beacons perched atop the radio towers—each individual lumen testifying to some unhesitant intemperate collective aspiration."

If there’s any disappointment, it’s that Katey eventually does ascend the social ladder to live that comfortable, moneyed existence she spends much of the novel questioning. This isn’t a spoiler, as the book’s action is bracketed and put in context by scenes of an older, married Katey. I think I might have wanted her to hold out, although she’s a character whose happiness you can’t help rooting for. Still, George Washington’s Rules of Civility—those cordial aphorisms Tinker purported to live by, to varying degrees of success—have nothing on Katey’s own:

"Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane—in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath—she has put herself in unnecessary danger."

Now those are rules I can live with, and I do hope that Katey, with all her verve and appeal, remembers them too. The fact that I’m wishing good things for a novel’s heroine long after I’ve shut the book speaks well of her, and of Amor Towles and his Rules of Civility. It’s a fun, glittery world to slip into, and I enjoyed my time there thoroughly. ( )
  lisapeet | Jan 3, 2014 |
I liked this book well enough. The story was engaging, the characters well developed and it was more of a character read than a plot driven story. The setting in New York City and time period of late thirties and forties was interesting but when I was done reading, it was really hard to decide what this book was about. I guess from the title it would be about rules of manners. It was about money, influence and social climbing. It reminded me of The Great Gatsby. ( )
  Kristelh | Nov 28, 2013 |
Have you ever wondered, if not for that one time you were in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time, or in the right spot at exactly the wrong time, how your life would have played out differently? For Katey Kontent, just such an incident occurred on New Years Eve of 1937, where a chance meeting with a young banker in a jazz bar drastically changed the course the next year, and really, the rest of her life.

Rules of Civility starts out in 1966 at an art exhibit featuring photos taken by hidden camera in the New York subway in the late 1930s (a real exhibit whose photos were published in Walker Evan’s Many are Called) where Katey chances upon two photos of the same young man, which bring back waves of memories from her youth. With just that small glimpse of her future life, we plunge back to New Years Eve, 1937, the night that she first met the man from the photos, Tinker Grey.

After this first meeting, Tinker, Katey, and her roommate Eve become fast friends and hurdle head first into 1938 together. Tinker is a wealthy young banker from a very different world than Brooklyn-born secretary Katey and Midwest-transplant Eve, but their friendship is fueled in part by their ability to introduce each other to different social worlds, and to new and exciting sides of New York City itself.

Through this chance meeting, we follow Katey on a winding path through 1938 that leads to a different social set, a new apartment and job, and a new perspective about the world and people around her. Even as their friendship is strained, Tinker continues to play a dominant role in Katey’s life, representing most clearly how a person’s circumstances – their names, their income, where they grew up – do not always have to define them, and are not the only test of happiness and achievement.

The novel transports you back to a 1930s New York just beginning to climb of the melancholy of the Great Depression. On top of a clear determination and work ethic is, especially for working class Katey, an unmistakable sense of renewed possibility and opportunity that subtly gives the novel a hopeful and revitalizing tone. ( )
  meganelizabeth | Nov 19, 2013 |
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In Towles’s first novel, “Rules of Civility,” his clever heroine, who grew up in Brooklyn as “Katya,” restyles herself in 1930s Manhattan as the more clubbable “Katey,” aspiring to all-American inclusion. As World War II gears up, raising the economy from bust to boom, Katey’s wit and charm lift her from a secretarial pool at a law firm to a high-profile assistant’s perch at a flashy new Condé Nast magazine. One night at the novel’s outset touches off the chain reaction that will produce both Katey’s career and her husband, and define her entire adult life. She’s swept into the satin-and-cashmere embrace of the smart set — blithe young people with names like Dicky and Bitsy and Bucky and Wallace — with their Oyster Bay mansions, their Adirondack camps, their cocktails at the St. Regis and all the fog of Fishers Island.
If there's a problem, it's this: the parallels with Breakfast at Tiffany's are perhaps a little too overt (glamorous but down-at-heel girl falls in love with wealthy but mysterious benefactor). But that's not exactly a complaint. This is a flesh-and-blood tale you believe in, with fabulous period detail. It's all too rare to find a fun, glamorous, semi-literary tale to get lost in.
Manhattan in the late 1930s is the setting for this saga of a bright, attractive and ambitious young woman whose relationships with her insecure roommate and the privileged Adonis they meet in a jazz club are never the same after an auto accident.
added by sherton | editKirkus Review (Jun 1, 2011)
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—Matthew 22:8-14
For Maggie, my comet
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On the night of October 4th, 1966, Val and I, both in late middle age, attended the opening of Many Are Called at the Museum of Modern Art—the first exhibit of the portraits taken by Walker Evans in the late 1930s on the New York City subways with a hidden camera.
As a quick aside, let me observe that in moments of high emotion -- whether they're triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment -- if the next thing you're going to say makes you feel better, then it's probably the wrong thing to say. This is one of the finer maxims that I've discovered in life. And you can have it, since it's been of no use to me.
The 1930s . . .
what a grueling decade that was.
I was sixteen when the Depression began, just old enough to have had all my dreams and expectations duped by the effortless glamour of the twenties. It was as if America launched the Depression just to teach Manhattan a lesson.
It turned out to be a book of Washingtonia. The inscription on the front page indicated it was a present to Tinker fro his mother on the occasion of his fourteenth birthday. The volume had all the famous speeches and letters arranged in chronological order, but it led off with an aspirational list composed by the founder in his teenage years:
Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. . . . There were 110 of them! And over half were underlined – one adolescent sharing another's enthusiasm for propriety across a chasm of 150 years. It was hard to decide which was sweeter – the fact that Tinker's mother had given it to him, or the fact that he kept it at hand.
Squirrels scattered before us among the tree trunks and yellow-tailed birds zipped from branch to branch. The air smelled of sumac and sassafras and other sweet-sounding words.
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.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0670022691, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, August 2011 Set during the hazy, enchanting, and martini-filled world of New York City circa 1938, Rules of Civility follows three friends--Katey, Eve, and Tinker--from their chance meeting at a jazz club on New Year's Eve through a year of enlightening and occasionally tragic adventures. Tinker orbits in the world of the wealthy; Katey and Eve stretch their few dollars out each evening on the town. While all three are complex characters, Katey is the story's shining star. She is a fully realized heroine, unique in her strong sense of self amidst her life's continual fluctuations. Towles' writing also paints an inviting picture of New York City, without forgetting its sharp edges. Reminiscent of Fitzgerald, Rules of Civility is full of delicious sentences you can sit back and savor (most appropriately with a martini or two). --Caley Anderson

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 twenty-five-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.

Amor Towles's Rules of Civility Playlist

You can listen to the playlist here.

While jazz is not central to the narrative of Rules of Civility, the music and its various formulations are an important component of the book’s backdrop.

On the night of January 16, 1938, Benny Goodman assembled a bi-racial orchestra to play jazz to a sold-out Carnegie Hall--the first jazz performance in the hallowed hall and one which is now famous for bringing jazz (and black performers) to a wider audience. I am not a jazz historian, but for me the concert marks something of a turning point in jazz itself--from the big-band, swing-era sound that dominated the 1930s (and which the orchestra emphasized on stage that night) towards the more introspective, smaller group styles that would soon spawn bebop and its smoky aftereffects (ultimately reaching an apogee with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue in 1957). For it is also in 1938 that Coleman Hawkins recorded the bebop antecedent "Body & Soul" and Minton’s Playhouse, one of the key bebop gathering spots, opened in Harlem. By 1939, Blue Note Records was recording, and Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were all congregating in New York City. From 1935-1939, Goodman himself was stepping out of the big-band limelight to make more intimate improvisational recordings with a quartet including Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton.

My assertion of this as a turning point (like most such assertions) is rough, inexact and misleading, but it helps give shape to an evolution and bring into relief two ends of a jazz spectrum. On the big-band front, the power of the music naturally springs from the collective and orchestration. In numbers like "Sing, Sing, Sing," the carefully layered, precisely timed waning and waxing of rhythm and instrumentation towards moments of unified musical ecstasy simply demand that the audience collaborate through dance, cheers, and other outward expressions of joy. While in the smaller groups of bebop and beyond, the expressive power springs more from the soloist and his personal exploration of the music, his instrument, and his emotional state at that precise moment in time. This inevitably inspires in the listener a cigarette, a scotch, and a little more introspection. In a sense, the two ends of this jazz spectrum are like the public/private paradox of Walker Evans’s subway photographs (and of life in the metropolis itself.)

If you are interested, I have created an playlist of music from roughly 1935-1945 that spans this transition. The playlist is not meant to be comprehensive or exact. Among other items, it includes swinging live performances from Goodman’s Carnegie Hall Concert as well as examples of his smaller group work; there are precursors to bebop like Coleman Hawkins and some early Charlie Parker. As a strange historical footnote, there was a strike in 1942–1944 by the American Federation of Musicians, during which no official recordings were made. As such, this period at the onset of bebop was virtually undocumented and thus the records of 1945 reflect something of a culmination of early bebop rather than its starting point. The playlist also reflects the influence of the great American songbook giants (Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins), many of whom were at the height of their powers in the 1930s. --Amor Towles

Listen to the playlist

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:04:25 -0400)

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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 asingle-minded widow.… (more)

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