Book Review: Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility by Amor TowlesRules of Civility: A Novel
by Amor Towles
Penguin, 2011
352 Pages (Paperback)


Take a quick-thinking, ambitious Bronte heroine, put a chilled cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and set her in a dusky Manhattan jazz bar on the eve of 1938. That’s Katey Kontent, and she’s about to have a chance encounter with a young banker named Tinker Grey, an encounter that will permanently alter the trajectory of her life—and his.

Katey is one of the strongest, sharpest protagonists I have read in a long time. Like other immigrant daughters, she has every intention of making a better life for herself, but she’s not at all ashamed of her background and she’s not looking for shortcuts. Her voice is wry and authentic, with the straight-shooting delivery of a film noir private eye.

Rules of Civility is a sweeping drama, capturing the ethos of the golden age of jazz. But it’s much more than that. It’s an astonishing debut with self-assured prose and pitch-perfect dialogue. A broad cast of characters supports the melody: down-on-their-luck WPA artists and prim legal secretaries, vengeful publishers and ruthless heiresses, observant doormen and perky pin-up girls, all determined to live life on their own terms and leave nothing—or perhaps everything—to chance.

The events set in motion the night Katey meets Tinker force her to define herself outside of her status, her job, or her friends. Each discovery opens the door to new wounds that may heal old ones and revised ambitions that replace naive ideals. Over the course of one pivotal year, she forges an inner identity that can’t be shaken by external threats or advances.

As if in empathy, New York is coming of age in the modern world even as Katey is coming into her own. Prohibition is over. Jazz is exploding. Those who survived the Crash are shoring up their financial strongholds; those who didn’t sleep in the streets. Women are investing in their own ventures and moving into careers previously restricted to men. And one World War is past with another on the brink.

Against this momentous backdrop, Rules of Civility—like the Great American Novels it’s reminiscent of—is concerned with the politics of class and the struggle for upward mobility. With memorable storytelling, Towles capably explores how experience shapes character, how personal narratives are selected, and how simple choices have long-reaching effects on who we are and where we are going.

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