Reading Recommendations: Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

I don’t have much news in the realm of Fulbright preparations, so instead I thought I would talk a bit about what I’ve been reading lately. Over the weekend, I finished reading Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, and I highly recommend it.

Rules of Civility follows one year in the life of native New Yorker Katey Kontent (pronounced con-tent, as she makes very clear). That year is 1938, when she and her roommate meet Tinker Grey, a Wall Street banker, at a local jazz club on New Year’s Eve. They become fast friends until a car accident rearranges their relationships. Now on her own, Katey embarks on her own set of adventures, moving from the secretarial pool at a stuffy law firm to the executive offices of Condé Nast—and trading up in her social circle as well, dating both a multi-millionaire who goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War and an old-money ne’er-do-well with attractive manners. Throughout it all, though, Tinker never leaves her thoughts, and when their paths cross, it leads to some shocking revelations.

Even though Rules of Civility technically deals with the ups and downs of Katey’s 1938, it is Tinker Grey who is the novel’s principle fascination. He invites comparisons to Jay Gatsby, with his lavish lifestyle, romantic spirit, and—of course—dark secrets about the source of his wealth. At certain points in the story, we even get to drop in on what Tinker is doing, snatching little moments in italics. Even though she is absent in these small scenes, the reader is able to see a bit more of what Katey sees, while continuing to build the character’s mystique.

It is also a novel that has literature in its DNA: references to TS Eliot, Dickens, and Thoreau run throughout. Katey is an enthusiastic reader, and the books people choose to read—and how they relate to those books—is part of how Towles builds his characters. Katey’s roommate, for instance, detests the female writers people think she’s supposed to like: Austen, the Brontës, Virginia Woolf. Katey makes a strategic career move over a shared love of Russian literature. And the mysterious Tinker Grey’s favorite book is George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, the source of this novel’s title.

All in all, Rules of Civility is an interesting story with a varied cast of characters. It can get a bit slow at times, and New York’s prewar high society can get intensely stuffy—there were moments when I was ready for a spontaneous workers’ revolution—but I would still recommend it as a good read.

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