If you like the Manhattan borough of New York City, you’ll like Amor Towles’ “Rules of Civility.” It’s not just that this novel is set in the Big Apple, but the city itself is a character. Only in New York could this story take place.
The setting is 1938. Manhattanites are surviving — or not surviving — the Great Depression, jazz clubs are flourishing, the privileged are throwing lavish parties and those who strive to become privileged are trying to climb the social ladder in Glamorous Gotham. One character asks another, “Have you noticed how New York just opens you up?”
On the last night of 1937, 25-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker, happens to sit at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel her on a yearlong journey toward the upper echelons of New York society where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve.
I raced through this 300+ page book. The dialogue is snappy, the characters well defined and the story enticing. Tinker Grey conducts his life according to George Washington’s Rules of Civility, which I had never heard of but really does exist. There’s a surprise twist that throws him off kilter — or is it simply that Gotham is taking its pound of flesh?
People magazine’s review states, “Put on some Billie Holiday, pour a dry martini and immerse yourself in the eventful life of Katey Kontent…(Towles) clearly knows the privileged world he’s writing about, as well as the vivid, sometimes reckless characters who inhabit it.”
Rules of Civility draws readers into an exploration of love and timing, friendship and betrayal, class and money. The writing is so luxurious, veering from playful to piercing, that I wanted to savor every sentence.
This is the first novel written by Amor Towles, who was born and reared just outside Boston. He is a graduate of Yale University, received an MA in English from Stanford University and is a principal at an investment firm in New York.