THE RULES OF CIVILITY
by Amor Towles
Format read: Signed Advanced Reader’s Copy
Additional Formats Hardcover/Ebook /Audiobook Download
352 Pages | 26 Jun 2012| Penguin Books
ARC obtained anonymously at BEA. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.
Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year-old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.
The story opens on New Year’s Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss. http://amortowles.com/the-book/
I picked this book up anonymously at BEA. Frankly it sat on my shelf and I didn;t think I would get to it during my blogging career. But, someone chose it for my book club so here I am. It is “literary fiction,” so is probably intended to be critiqued in all sorts of esoteric manners.
This book is about a lot of things. Like a contemporary romance featuring youngish people, the times were tough, people were on the end of the Great Depression and an economic relapse and on the verge of WWII (with forays into the Spanish Civil War). Social roles were changing and our classless society was both stratifying and dissolving. Like the books wherein people in their 20s and 30s try to find direction in contemporary times, this book deals with similar choices and issues. It also nods to great writers of the story’s time period (pre-WWII): Fitzgerald, Rand, Parker, etc.
Have you ever had friends you thought you would have forever, the friends you thought really knew you to the bottom of your soul and you them? I’m not talking about the girls you met at sleep-away camp when you were teens, but the friend you met as an adult, who you treated as a sister, and who then blew you off, or who inexplicably changed personalities? This story, for me spoke directly to the fickle nature of some friendship; especially as we become adults.
I felt as if this book rambled a lot: at times I thought it wasn’t really going anywhere. But one thing leads to another, one “minor” encounter can have remarkably long lasting effects. It was unusual in its punctuation; avoiding those pesky quotation marks.
Katey is something interesting: well read, smart, amply skilled in shorthand and such, clever, with ambiguous morals. If she had been a man at the time, the world would have been her oyster. But, as one woman tells her in the book she shouldn’t worry about what the guy she ends up with is going to do, but what she is going to do.
It was one of those times when the pendulum was swinging forward for women, and society women were more hampered by norms than the women who had built themselves up from nothing were. Katey had no expectations from friends or family — she appears to have had neither between her father’s death and the time of the story. In a sense she is a blank slate upon which the twentieth century gets to write its story of what a working woman is. She is also without a social past, and through coincidence becomes like a visitor to another planet as she enters social circles higher than those of her birth and status.
While unquestionably Katey is the heroine of this story, she is morally ambiguous. She isn’t a bad person, but she’s no Mother Theresa.
This is the second book in one week I read about the same period of time, with the other occurring in England. I felt in each though that the women were dispassionate, husks really, waiting for a man, or at least love, to make their lives begin. Of course each learns that is not how one’s life is made complete but it is the premium toppings on the sundae.
Katey has the sense to go on living and progressing without the necessity of a man, although she still has the tendency towards wanting one. But, getting in on the ground floor of a new magazine, she is the “new woman;” like Katherine Hepburn in a slew of movies (although her popularity was a little later), she could become the first Helen Gurley Brown if she stayed focused.
The “Rules of Civility’ refer to a text attributed to George Washington setting forth rules every young man should aspire to follow.
But this book is about a lot of things — some are obvious and others are not. I found it slow to start but easy to read. And, I find I keep thinking about it and what it means. It is strange and modern, and yet ordinary and classic. Highly recommend.