“Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles (2011) – 337 pages
This is the time of year when people are trying to figure out which of the Man Booker longlisters will make it to the coveted short list. This year, for a change, there is even some excitement among book people in the United States mainly due to a debut novel written by a 46 year-old money manager at an investment firm, Amor Towles. “Rules of Civility” is already moving up the bestseller lists, quite an accomplishment for a literary novel.
“Rules of Civility” is a special novel, a throwback to a more elegant time and place.
Most of “Rules of Civility” takes place in New York City during 1937 and 1938, and it centers on a young woman, Katie Kontent, and her friends and acquaintances. When the novel starts out, Katie is living in a dorm-like apartment building for young women and working in an office as a typist. She befriends Eve Ross, and they become roommates in the dorm. On the last night of 1937, Katie and Eve go out to a jazz club called The Hotspot, where they meet the clearly well-to-do young man Tinker Grey.
“Eve saw him first. She was looking back from the stage to make some remark, and she spied him over my shoulder. She gave me a kick in the shin and nodded in his direction. I shifted my chair.
He was terrific looking. An upright five foot ten, dressed in black tie with a coat draped over his arm, he had brown hair and royal blue eyes and a small star-shaped blush at the center of each cheek. You could just picture his forbear at the helm of the Mayflower—with a gaze turned brightly on the horizon and hair a little curly from the salt sea air.
–Dibs, said Eve.”
Soon Tinker is taking both working girls to the finest restaurants and night clubs in New York City. One of the many charms of “Rules of Civility’ is seeing the jazz clubs, the expensive restaurants, and New York City through Katie’s eyes. The short, snappy, sharp one-liner dialogue between Katie and Eve is humorously diverting. Amor Towles provides all the stylish sensuous details of the late Thirties. Even though ‘Rules of Civility’ takes place in a completely different era than ‘Mad Men’, both of these works caused me to look at our own time in comparison and find it wanting in style. Many of the characters in “Rules of Civility” are well-to-do, and they are polite, amiable, and deeply interested in art, music, and literature. This is not at all like today when most of the rich people seem like vicious ignorant Tea Party blowhards.
The title of the novel comes from the “110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” which sixteen year-old George Washington wrote out by hand. The first rule is “Every Action done in Company ought to be with some Sign of Respect to those that are Present.” The rules are all about being polite and getting along well in society. The character in the novel, Tinker Grey, adopted these rules as his own. Perhaps in real life these “Rules of Civility” might be even more important than any list of moral precepts. All 110 rules of civility are listed at the end of the novel.
About the only thing that doesn’t work in the novel is the framing device with the novel starting out at an art show in a museum in the 1960s, and then flashing back to 1937. There just did not seem any good reason for the Sixties scenes except as a device for Katie to look back on her younger days with fond memories. But maybe that was enough reason.
How long has it been since you have read a smart stylish elegant novel? If you are interested, “Rules of Civility” is the ticket.