Amor Towles: Rules of Civility (2011)

This is the reason why I always look forward to new releases because ever so often you discover a new book and simply enjoy it to the extent of wanting to start all over again after finishing it. This doesn’t always have to be a book that will enter the literary canon, it can just be a novel that makes you spend a few extremely entertaining hours. Like a well-made movie.

If you want to get the proper feel for Rules of Civility, you should listen to Billie Holiday singing Autumn in New York below. As Katey Kontent, the books narrator and main character, rightly says, every city has its season and for New York that seems to be autumn. And this book is all about New York in the 30s, its atmosphere, the Jazz Clubs, the lifestyle of the upper classes, drinking champagne and Martini’s, party going. It also made me think of Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks, melancholic looking people at a bar late at night. When I visited Amor Towles website, I discovered that that’s exactly what he had in mind.

But what ultimately made me love this book was the narrator and main character, Kate Kontent. She is witty and intelligent, quick at repartee, full of wisdom. No wonder this is a highly quotable book. There a so many bon mots in it I could have copied one after the other. And I like a character who loves reading and makes you want to dash out and get the books she talks about. At the beginning of the novel, she reads Dickens and then moves on to Agatha Christie, overcoming her prejudice about mysteries and discovering a world of comfort and justice.

Rules of Civility tells the story of one year in the life of Katey Kontent. The novel begins in 1966 when Katey and her husband see the photo of a shabby looking Tinker Grey in an exhibition. Tinker who was one of the famous Wall-Street bankers. She knew Tinker and tells her husband so, however she doesn’t tell him how well she knew him. After this short intro the novel rewinds to New Year’s Eve 1937.

On New Year’s Eve 1937 the intelligent and sassy Kate and her best friend and roommate Eve, a gorgeous blonde from the Midwest, sit in a jazz club, waiting for someone to pay them a few glasses of champagne, when the extremely elegant and rich looking Tinker enters the club and they get to know each other.

They get along so well that the three of them hit the town together on many nights until they have a terrible accident. Until this time both women are interested in Tinker for different reasons but it is very obvious who he would like to get to know better. The accident changes everything, their relationships and ultimately it changes the course of their lives.

The year flies by in front of the reader. Katey who was a secretary becomes an assistant for a new glamour magazine, she meets interesting people, has different relationships with men but there are four people, including Eve and Tinker, that are more important than anyone else and although they will drift apart, she will never forget them.

It’s amazing to see these people come to life. At the end of the novel I thought, I had met Kate, Eve and Tinker, Wallace who joins up and fights in the Spanish Civil War and the ever so joyful Dickey. It’s a very artful novel. Towles knows how to create a world that comes to life and thanks to Kate’s incredible sense of repartee the novel is full of great sentences.

The most important theme of the book is making choices that’s why it’s such a melancholic book. As Katey says, even if you make the right choices

I have no doubt that they were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes losses.

I could have added a lot of quotes but chose not too. All these sentences are embedded in the novel and are like little gems that we discover while reading and every time I tought “Oh that’s so well said” or “That’s so nicely phrased”. I don’t want to spoil these discoveries for anyone.

I really enjoyed this book, it’s very well written and it would make a wonderful movie.

I discovered the book on Danielle’s blog who reviewed it here. Jacquelin Cangro reviewed it here and Tracey here. Jackie mentioned it here.