Book Review: Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility is a beautifully written novel set in post-depression New York City. It tells the story of Kate, a wise and well-read working girl, who suddenly finds herself maneuvering through the sparkling upper echelons of high society. This is a coming of age tale for people in their twenties, as it explores aspirations, relationships and finding a place in life that makes you mentally and morally ok with yourself.

On New Year’s Eve, 1937, Kate finds herself in a cheap jazz bar with her boarding house roommate, Eve. They have carefully rationed their nickels for the night’s festivities, as neither of them makes much money in their jobs (Kate works in a typing pool). When Tinker Grey wanders into the bar looking for his brother, it alters the courses of all three of their lives. Tinker, a young wealthy banker, connects with the girls and the three of them form a friendship. Through Tinker, Kate and Eve are introduced to social circles they never would have had access to otherwise. And the reader gets a front row seat as the author treats us to a glittery world of fabulous cars, expensive house parties and beautiful people.

Kate adapts well to switching between the different social strata. She possesses a naturally sophisticated mind and is outgoing and seemingly fearless. 1938 proves to be a landmark year for her. It’s a year in which she has to make life changing choices about her job, her relationships and even where she lives. Her journey is populated with memorable characters, some young and also trying to find their way, others more established who test Kate’s wits. They affect her and she also leaves her mark on them. It’s a unique and often poignant account of how we grow and also impact other people’s lives to help them do the same.

I loved this novel. Amor Towles is a gifted storyteller and his prose is gorgeous. I feel smarter when I’m reading him, like he’s nourishing my brain. A Gentleman in Moscow had the same effect on me. And his stories are so, for lack of a better word, pleasant. OK, maybe genteel is a better word. He is able to tell an impactful story without relying on devices that are shocking, disrespectful or otherwise over-the-top. Other authors may have made this a predictable indictment of the upper class. Instead, Mr. Towles made it a celebration of refinement – good manners, well prepared meals, finely tailored clothing – while still subtly pointing out some universal human flaws and virtues.

My only complaint is that Amor Towles doesn’t write fast enough. Rules of Civility, his first novel, was published in 2011 and then his second (and only other) novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, was published in 2016. I suppose you can’t rush a good thing, but I hope it doesn’t take five years for the release of his next novel!

I know many of you have read Rules of Civility (Tracy). Tell me what you thought.

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

  1. My apologies. I did not read your review to the end. I agree he needs to write faster! My book club read Tules of Civility last year. At first I thought it was going to be a fluff book but I was very pleasantly surprised. He really is a good writer. As much as I liked Rules, I loved Gentleman. They are such different stories, I can’t wait to see what comes next. Take care. 🤗

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    • No problem! They are very different stories, but the same great writing. I recently read that he made three major rewrites before finishing Gentleman. I don’t know how authors do it!

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      • I have always admired and been amazed at writing talent. I love to read but I do not have the imagination that a writer needs. I will be satisfied just reading as long as there are authors like Amor Towles. Take care!
        Rosie

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  2. I read this book years ago but still one of my favorites. I loved his writing style and the characters. It was a good historical read. I wasn’t as fond as the Gentleman – interesting storyline – but still enjoyed it.

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  3. I so agree with you and Rosie. Amor Towles is a gem and I also am impatiently waiting for his next novel. As much as I liked Rules of Civility, I loved, loved, loved Gentleman in Moscow. In fact, I read it twice and I never, never do that. I saw so much more on the second reading. For example, did you notice that the chapters and the time they covered lengthened in a mathematical doubling and then began shortening in the same fashion, just as our lives seem to do so. (I’m almost 70 so I am seeing the shortening of the years (seemingly) as I age.) He also began every word in every chapter name with the letter “A.” I am not sure this has any significance at all, but it could explain what takes him so long between books. Good grief, all that wasted time thinking up chapter names! More seriously, I did see important things in the second reading and found myself writing down favorite quotes – which I now can’t find. I know I have a whole notebook of them somewhere. I was racing through the first time because the story was pulling me along, but the second time, I could stop and smell the roses, so to speak… Sorry, I know the book under discussion is Rules of Civility and your review is great, but Gentleman won my heart. I should confess that I studied Russian language for four years and read a lot of literature in Russian so maybe that was why it captured my affections. I missed a chance to see Amor Towles speak this year here or I might have become a groupie following him around the country!

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  4. I just now read your review Michelle – can you tell I don’t spend a lot of time on e-mail? What I was struck by was not this book, since I haven’t read it but by your description of it. Have you considered writing a book? Your prose is quite elegant and I feel smarter when I read what you write, as long as I keep my dictionary close at hand! You really ought to write a book!

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