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.