“Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles

A Book Review

This period piece is more than just a romance novel.

Book Cover for Rules of Civility by Amor TowlesPhotography by Vipula Gupta

I am not the first reviewer to compare Rules of Civility to The Great Gatsby. Both are period dramas set in the glamorous worlds of high society New York with a doomed romance at their center. Both are placed in the early 1900s, in a time between the wars. But at the risk of committing literary blasphemy, I am going to admit that I found Rules of Civility infinitely preferable.

I never did have any patience for the purposeless life of the bored rich and their poor life choices. Maybe I didn?t care for the romance, or perhaps I need to go back and read it to appreciate the finer points of social commentary. Rules of Civility, on the other hand, was such a joy to read.

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Plot Summary

It?s New Year Eve in 1938, and two young women finish their last drink in a seedy jazz bar waiting for something to happen before midnight. Just on cue, prince charming appears in the shape and form of Tinker Grey, a good-looking, rich, young man ? clearly a New York blue blood. This chance encounter changes the lives of these three people forever.

Our heroine, Katey Constant, is obviously very much into Tinker Grey, but before anything materializes between, a sequence of unexpected events lands Eve and Tinker together. Eve being the other young woman in the bar that night.

But this is not just a love story. It is really the story of Katey Constant and her fateful year in New York City that started at midnight in that seedy jazz bar. To put distance between herself and the new couple, Katey focuses on her career. She works as a secretary in a law firm, and while she is excellent at what she does, her real ambition is to work in publishing. Her attempt to work with a successful literary critic follows through, and she is then introduced to the world of elite editorial assistants. Basically, rich college-educated girls passing the time before they marry and take up a house in the Hamptons.

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While her acquaintance with Tinker lets Katey through the door of the rich and famous, it?s really the new job that brings her into the inner circle of the WASPs. During the day, she is a diligent secretary working for a cranky and eccentric boss in the posh offices of Conde Nast. In the evening, she roams the fancy clubs and house parties with her aimless but rich friends.

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And in between, she tries to get over Tinker. The closest she comes to finding a real friendship is with another rich and gentle soul, Wallace Wolcott. He is a great companion, friend, and excellent shooter. He further broadens her horizons in the upper circles of New York society. When Wallace ships to Spain to fight Franco, Tinker finds his way back into Katey?s life.

?If we only fell in love with people who were perfect for us?then there wouldn?t be so much fuss about love in the first place.?

Katey and Tinker?s relationship never reaches its logical conclusion. Tinker is buried under the expectations of his family name and New York?s society. He tries to live his life by George Washington?s Rules of Civility, and in the end, it?s too much for him. Breaking away from it all is his only choice.

?That?s the problem with living in New York. You?ve got no New York to run away to.?

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Observations

Rules of Civility is not an entirely unique novel. It?s at some level a coming-of-age story about a young girl who finds her way through New York society.

The beauty of the book is in its telling. Towles recreates New York of the past with great conviction, and it?s a joy to follow Katey around Manhattan. Towles also acknowledges the migrant melting pot that New York already was as readers hop about Russian, Jewish, and Chinese neighborhoods.

The writing is elegant and engaging with an almost effervescent quality. It?s a straightforward novel to read, yet it?s deeply textured. Eve, Tinker, Nathan, Wallace, and Dicky are all trying to survive New York, and each expects something different from the city.

A bittersweet thread runs through the pages as readers live through the friendships, loves, and heartbreaks of this young girl. The threat of war is looming over the country, but it is no more than background noise.

Reading Rules of Civility is like flipping through a black and white photo album, remembering the places of the past with a fond nostalgic eye.

?I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.?

To purchase this book, click here.

Check out these other reviews and recommendations by Vipula Gupta:

?The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets? by Eva Rice

A novel on love, life, and London in the 1950s

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9 Books To Read This Winter

9 books to cozy up to as temperatures drop outside

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Originally published at https://shadesofwords.com on December 22, 2019.

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