‘Rules of Civility’ is impressive first novel
Amor Towles’ first novel, “Rules of Civility,” (Viking, released July 26, 2011; $26.95; 352 pp) is a fresh, brightly-written tale of a young woman’s coming of age in New York as the Depression is ending and before America realizes the world’s greatest war is beginning.
The years in which the story is set, from the last night of 1937 to the last night of 1940, are significant in Katey’s life as the start of a career in publishing. At the time, Katey is working as a stenographer in a law office, living in a woman’s boarding house and going out on the town with her friend Eve to meet men, listen to jazz and experience the city.
Katey and Eve are pursuing careers and looking for love in a city that’s coming of age along with them. In a small jazz club on New Year’s Eve, they meet successful banker Tinker Grey, who befriends the two women and introduces them to New York’s high society, flirtly publicly with Eve and falling in love privately with Katey.
The story of Tinker and his relationships with first Eve and then Katey winds through the book and brings with it a cast of interesting characters: Wallace Wolcott, the reserved millionaire whose courtship of Katey becomes not a romance but a sincere friendship that gets both of them through their time of self-discovery; Dickey, a rich and delightful suitor who enjoys his life and takes Katey along for the ride, beguiling the reader because he is spoiled by his mother’s wealth , not in spite of it; Henry Grey, Tinker’s struggling artist brother, who lives on the seamier side of New York, coming in and out of Katey’s circles with reality checks on the state of mind and circumstances surrounding his brother.
Tinker is not always what he seems, and his relationships – with his godmother, his brother, Eve and finally Katey – appear uncomplicated, but each one hides the truth on some level.
Katey makes bold choices throughout the book – quitting a job just when she is promoted to pursue another career in which she has no experience, eventually taking her into the publishing world of Conde Nast.
The book’s title comes from George Washington’s “rules of civility” printed at the end of the book in their entirety. The rules are introduced as a standard by which Tinker claims to live.
Asked about how he claimed to focus on a document from an era 150 years before the book’s setting, Towles says, “I imagined Tinker as an avid student of the (colonial) period. But once into the book, I happened to pull a collection of Washington’s writings off my shelf, which led off with his ‘Rules of Civility’ – and I knew right away that the ‘Rules’ should be the primary thing that Tinker had studied.”
He calls the rules “Washington’s youthful list … at the heart of the whole crazy matter.”
While introduced as Tinker’s rules, they also blueprint Katey’s search for identity during a time in which New York and the nation are striving to recover from the Great Depression and preparing to face a horror beginning in Europe that they don’t yet know exists. The hopefulness of a young woman setting out on her life’s course matches that of a city and nation. Towles’ protagonist is a woman of ambition whose encounters and actions above all serve to protect her integrity.
The novel joins “The Postmistress” and “Sarah’s Key” as books set around the time and mood of a pending World War II, and Katey Kontent joins those books’ heroines as another woman of self-sufficient means and inspiring strength.
“Rules of Civility” is that rare combination of good storytelling and exacting prose from a first-time novelist that predicts Towles is a writer we will hear more from in the future.
– By Nancy March