Rules of Civility

When you see a car accident that you missed by minutes, or bump into someone because you decided to turn right instead of left, do you think fate? serendipity? Katey Kontent hops into the back seat of a car instead of the front, and her action changes the direction of her life in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility.

Katey flashes back to her life as a twenty-five year old from Brooklyn trying for a career, a husband, a life, in New York City in the late 1930s, when she sees a picture of Tinker Grey in an art gallery thirty years later.  Back then, she was trying to reinvent her life as the daughter of immigrant Russians, when she and her boardinghouse roommate, Eve, from Indiana, meet handsome and wealthy Tinker Grey on New Year’s Eve.  Although the threesome pal around together, Katey defers to Eve in pursuit of the rich prospect; Tinker, however, seems drawn to Katey.  In a bizarre twist, a car accident injures Eve, and Tinker’s guilt drives him to compensate by focusing attention and money to care for her. As Eve slowly recovers but remains scarred, it’s clear that Katey is now the third wheel.

The title is based on the historical document transcribed by George Washington as his guide for behavior; the 110 rules of etiquette included recommendations for proper dress and public behavior, but also address moral and decency issues.  Tinker has a worn copy that at first seems whimsical but later provides Katey with the clues to who he really is, when she discovers his background and source of income.  Towles includes the listing in an Appendix; number 11o suggests the theme for the story:

110th –  Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.

Facing the possibility of a dull career in the secretarial pool, as Tinker and Eve abandon her to fly off to warmer climes or party with Tinker’s wealthy friends, Katey bravely quits her dull job, and finesses her way into Conde Nast.  Through Tinker’s connections, Katey continues to taste the good life, partying with Dickie and Bitsey and Wallace, New York’s wealthy elite, who live behind a social veneer that Katey eventually cracks open.  Of course, their lives are not what Katey supposes they are.  With the witty observations of a Dorothy Parker, Towles examines Katey’s climb to the executive suite and her new society friends in a carefree New York City as she tries to follow the rules.  And rules are everywhere…

“…be careful when choosing what you’re proud of…because the world has every intention of using it against you…”

“…right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

More than an historical romance, Rules of Civility has the flavor of an old black and white movie. The scenes from New York City may remind you of Ginger Rogers and Rosalind Russell in smart outfits and sharp banter, in the time after the Depression and before World War II when “girls” left small towns to room at the Barbizon or boarding houses in Greenwich Village, and rich socialites gave parties and escaped to the Hamptons.

Life is – oh, so very civilized – but “it {doesn’t} come without a price.”

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2 thoughts on “Rules of Civility

  1. Mary Anne Sjoberg

    I just finished this – I had seen your review but didn’t want a spoiler so waited until now. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Lots of twists and turns which he summed up well in the epilogue discussing just how final are the decisions we make along the way. The setting and time were also glamorous – very Gatsbyish. Recommend this read.

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