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.

38 thoughts on “Amor Towles: Rules of Civility (2011)

  1. I agree that this book is very well written and there are wonderful quotable sentences everywhere. Unfortunately it wasn’t for me. I seem to have a problem with books about the upper classes. I probably need to see a therapist about it! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

  2. Listening to Billie Holiday really did set the mood. Lol and I really like the book cover as well. It’s weird but just by looking at the cover I could tell it was going to be a book about the 30’s…wonder why that is. I really liked your review Caroline.

    • Tanks, Skye, glad you liked the review. 🙂 I thought the song captured the mood verywell. I think it’s a great cover, there is another one but this is the one I have and I like it better. I hope it will be made into a movie. I’d like to see the clothes.

  3. I’m so glad you enjoyed this book as much as I did. It was such a wonderful read. The author just immersed us into the time period without relying on cliche images or stock phrases.

    I remember reading an interview with Amor Towles about the theme of the book. He was thinking about the active choices we make and how they affect our future. He wanted the characters to be at the point in their lives where the options were so wide open and then, through their choices, the path in front of them gets narrower.

    Thank you for linking back to my review!

    • Oh I loved it. The characters are so realistic. I think there are moments like this in our life when something incredible happens and then we decide a few things and that does narrow down the number of other options. He id capture the atmosphere but it really wasn’t cliched.
      Your welcome, and will soon be mentioned/linked again btw. I’ll post something on Ann Patchett’s essay on Thursday or Friday.

  4. As you know, I’m a sucker for seductive book covers, and that one’s a winner. I’ll almost certainly pick this up, as I also seem to have a minor thing for novels about mid-century New York in which people are wandering about the city drinking champagne and listening to jazz (Vincent McHugh’s wonderful I Am Thinking of My Darling comes to mind).

  5. Wonderful review, it made me want to pick up the novel at once. I love novels that bring alive an era, this seems like one I’d fall in love with.

  6. I have to get this book! I’m fascinated with the 30s and NYC. Thanks for the review! Will it make me want to read all of Christie’s novels next year 🙂

  7. I love to find such a book, no intellectual pretense and a great reading moment, like watching a good film, as you say.
    I’ve never heard of it but you sure make me want to read it.

    • That’s how it was, a great read but still intelligent.
      I think someone compared it to Fitzgerald.
      In any case you could read it in English, it’s not difficult. I’m a bit worried they would ruin the sentences in a translation.

      • I thought about Fitzgerald and Tales From the Jazz Age.

        It could be interesting to compare the two, one written by someone who lives the periode and one written by someone who imagines it.

  8. Wonderful review, Caroline! The fact that the main character in the book reads books and this forms an important part of the plot and character development, makes me want to pick this book 🙂

    • I’m glad you liked the review. Yes, katey is a reader through and through and she is immersed in the world of the novels. I liked her for that and her quick wit. It’s a very enjoyable book.

  9. Oh, this sounds like a good one, Caroline. I missed Jackie’s review somehow, so appreciate the link. I always like hearing an author talk about their work.
    Have to agree–New York and autumn so go together.

  10. Great review Caroline…I should have said the first paragraph when I wrote my review of Battle Royale…because that is exactly how I feel about it.

    the book sounds interesting, I always love book with well defined characters…for me that is one part of enjoyable book.

  11. I really loved this one, too. So glad you liked it and reading your post makes me relive it and want to read it all over again for just the reasons you mention–you capture the story so well. Katey is a great character, and Towles writes so well about the period and place–it is just enough to give a feel for it all without being overwhelming. And yes, all the wonderful things that Katey says–I wish I was as articulate as she is! I love the cover of the UK edition–nicely done! I borrowed this from the library, but I think I might buy it when it comes out in paper as it is one I think I would enjoy rereading.

    • I’m glad you reviewed it. I didn’t expect to like it so much but Katey is a great character. And thought he wrote well about life as such, and for once to choose a moredistant period worked well as it enhanced the feeling of something lost and long gone.
      I’m never sure what covers I get as amazon de often has many different ones and I’m note even sure I always get the one I ordered. The book formats are also different from what you see in UK book shops for example.
      This is a book to own, just to open it occasioanlly and read some of those sentences.

  12. Glad you enjoyed it so much too Caroline! I’m in the middle of being seduced by the 1930s just now and was actually listening to Billie Holiday today although not Autumn in New York which I agree is the perfect accompaniement to this book.

    Now all we need to do is cast the characters for the movie – what fun that would be!

    • I really liked it a great deal. I listened to a few versions of the song but think hers is one of the best.
      I hope there will be a movie. I’ve been thinking about the cast… It would be fun.

  13. I just finished reading this and agree with so much of what you have to say! Very quotable, loved Katey, and completely swept away by the atmosphere. My only complaint was that I didn’t feel satisfied at the end. Eve departed so quickly and I never quite bought Katey’s problems with “the Rules of Civility.” And when Towles summed things up at the end, it felt too much like he was summing things up at the end…somehow, though, I really really did enjoy this book! I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I did! Great post 🙂

    • Thanks, Meghan. I didn’t feel like that about the end, I was somehow expecting it to end like this because of the way it began. All in all, what he describes is just one year in Katey’s life but that had a major impact. Eve did depart a bit too quickly, I agree. In any case, I was sad to see the book end. The Rules of Civility was something I didn’t buy either but I loved everything else so much.

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