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Rules of Civility: A Novel by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility: A Novel (edition 2011)

by Amor Towles

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2,7752083,036 (4.02)1 / 211
Title:Rules of Civility: A Novel
Authors:Amor Towles
Info:Viking Adult (2011), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 352 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:to-read, At the Lake

Work details

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

  1. 51
    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Cecilturtle)
  2. 30
    Atonement by Ian McEwan (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: Atonement, like Rules of Civility, paints a picture of events that instantly turn characters' worlds upside down. Also set in the 1930s, it highlights the lingering opulence of the age and how that can disappear amid tragedy.
  3. 21
    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.
  4. 00
    Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (sidiki)
  5. 11
    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.

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Showing 1-5 of 206 (next | show all)
Rules of Civility was a novel that I had been looking forward to reading for quite some time. The reviews, paired with the elegant cover, made me imagine lush descriptions of 1930's Manhattan: the elite, iconic New York features in a historic setting, and all the glamor that a book like this can detail.
Well, all of that was in this book. But somehow... it was a resounding miss.

The story follows the life of main character Katey Kontent for quite a few years during her twenties, as she attempts to make it in New York. She and her friend Eve meet a handsome young banker in a bar, Tinker Grey, and the three quickly become close friends. Both girls fall for Tinker, and although it seems that he is interested in Katey, everything is changed after they are involved in a car accident. Tinker fades in and out of Katey's life for the next handful of years, as she navigates her career and drifts about the edges of upper Manhattan society.

Towles' book is soundly set in the wealthy glamor of Manhattan, which I did enjoy. Our narrator Katey isn't confined to merely Park Avenue, however, and she takes us into Greenwich Village, Brooklyn, and many more corners of New York. If there is one thing that the reader could be able to take away from this book, it would have to be the setting.

There is not much of a clear-cut plot, and Towles was obviously aiming for a more character-driven novel. That would be great, except that I just deplored every single one of them.
They all grated on my nerves with their never-ending witty quips and clever lines, written as if scripted to become a memorable quote out of a quirky romantic comedy. Katey herself seems particularly adept in these devastatingly dashing one-liners, but then, so are all the other characters.
I'm sorry, but first of all, people simply do not talk like that all the time.
Secondly, if one character consistently speaks like that, fine. But in this book, it was practically everyone. And it got old very, very quickly.
I was so irritated with these people's perpetual razor sharp wit and sparkling quips, I repeatedly put away the book for weeks at a time.

Katey's friend Eve was given the same vein of at-the-ready witty lines, but with a brash humor thrown in, which I actually found even more irritating. She also seemed incredibly stereotypical - the gorgeous blonde bombshell that men can't leave alone. And let me guess - if that's her best friend, then the main character is probably a fairly attractive brunette who is more quiet and reserved, bookish and more intellectual.
And yes, that was precisely the case.
The third central character of the book, Tinker, was forever extolled and revered as a sort of "Adonis," (as one review puts it), but I could never see it. He came off as flat and unexciting to me.

The supposedly shocking twist revealed much later in the book was predictable and, perhaps even worse, just dull and poorly executed.

I was expecting so much more from The Rules of Civility, but it did not turn out to be a book that I enjoyed all that much - save for its depiction of historic Manhattan glamor. 2 stars, I suppose, with an extra half star thrown in just for New York's sake. ( )
1 vote joririchardson | Sep 18, 2018 |
Finished this book earlier than expected. Got towards the end and just had to read on. Loved the whole story and Towles' writing is excellent. He captured the era of the 30's in New York so well that you could hear the jazz music in your mind while reading. Characters were well-drawn and so believable. The plot really held my interest and moved along quickly. A very engaging read that should not be missed! ( )
  EadieB | Sep 14, 2018 |
Takes place post-depression era (1929 thru late 30s) in NYC. Kathrine Kontent straddles life between the poorer parts of NYC (sleeping women's shared housing to small east village studios) and the elite society (partying and eating with). Almost a Cinderella if you will. The two lives provide a clear contrast between those living off of family fortunes in a fantasy world and those working hard for every meal and the clothing on their backs. Towles does a splendid job of developing the characters, making you feel their feelings. He also can describe a scene so clearly but in fewer words than most writers, yet you miss nothing - you're there. As for Katy (Kate, Katherine), she lands on her feet, moving up the ladder step by cautious step. I missed this book the second it was finished. Great read. ( )
  rayski | Sep 10, 2018 |
This novel takes place in New York in 1938, not the generic New York, but the sophisticated, jazzy New York we've all seen in the movies. Middle-class, street-smart, Katy Kontent and her friend, free-spirited Evie, are befriended by the Gatsby-esque Tinker Gray. We learn in the introductory chapter - most of the book is a long flashback - that Gray felt fast and hard from his exalted position, while Katy made out okay, at least financially and socially. What we think is going to be a romp takes a more serious turn when Evie is seriously injured in a car accident. Tinker nurses her, and she runs off to Europe with him, for a time.

I started out loving this book but for me it petered out a bit - it was a little shapeless. I didn't get a good handle on Katy - sometimes she seemed just a way to tell the story of the men. I'm sure where she got her chutzpah - to quit a job upon getting a promotion, for example, or to seduce a guy by suddenly drawing a bath. Most of the characters were bolder than I and maybe that's why I had trouble connecting with them ( )
  CasualFriday | Aug 23, 2018 |
I thought the writing was a bit pretentious and it was a typical ode to New York City. The story was as much about New York as about Katy and Tinker, I am a bit tired of books that pretend nothing and no one exists outside of New York. That being said....one would think I didn't enjoy the story, but I did....I thought it was a different telling of the 1930's in that Katy was a working class girl who wasn't on the prowl for a husband, but was enjoying her single life in New York. I loved the character of Katy... ( )
  almin | Jul 29, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 206 (next | show all)
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 theeclecticreview | editKirkus Review (Jun 1, 2011)

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Amor Towlesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Payette, MaggieCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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—Matthew 22:8-14
For Maggie, my comet
First words
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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:59 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

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)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 8 descriptions

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