Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
In a jazz bar on the last night of 1937,
watching a quartet because she couldn’t afford to see the whole ensemble,
there were certain things Katey Kontent knew:
the location of every old church in Manhattan
how to sneak into the cinema
how to type eighty words a minute, five thousand an hour, and nine million a year
and that if you can still lose yourself in a Dickens novel then everything is going to be fine.
By the end of the year she’d learned:
how to live like a redhead
and insist upon the very best;
that riches can turn to rags in the trip of a heartbeat,
chance encounters can be fated, and the word ‘yes’ can be a poison.
That’s how quickly New York City comes about, like a weathervane, or the head of a cobra. Time tells which.
Rules of Civility is Amor Towles’ debut novel, and what a stunning debut it is! Very reminiscent of The Great Gatsby (so I’m told – I haven’t actually read The Great Gatsby yet much to my dismay), it is a story set in the heart of New York City in the late 1930s – a city full of underground jazz bars and a plentiful supply of martinis.
We first meet Katey Kontent and Evelyn Ross on the last night of 1937, and in walks Tinker Grey, young, good-looking and extremely wealthy. Both girls are instantly attracted to him and have yet to realise that this chance meeting with Tinker will affect their entire lives in ways they never would have thought possible. The threesome meet up night after night and it is clear that Tinker is leaning more towards Katey in his affections. However, a tragic car accident upsets the well-balanced friendship the three characters have created for themselves, and Tinker feels indebted to Evelyn who has suffered severe injuries from the crash. This leaves Katey to carry on working her not-so-glamorous job, whilst Evelyn lives the high life with Tinker, jetting to London and Paris, and mingling with the upper class socialites who wouldn’t have given her a second glance a few months ago.
But Katey has something unique in her day and age – the determination to make something of herself and to work her way up to the top. Katey starts working in publishing firms and is soon making a name for herself.
I don’t want to spoil the plot as there are some rather surprising twists near the end, but this is a novel about those people in life who get everything handed to them on a plate and take every advantage they can get in life, verses those people who work extremely hard, working their way up from the very bottom to make something of themselves and see their dreams come true. It’s a novel about love and friendship and how the smallest thing can alter your entire life.
This really is a remarkable debut novel. Amor Towles has such a way with words and such a vivid concept of what New York must have been like in the 1930s, that he manages to pull you in completely and make you feel like you really are there, sipping martinis at a local jazz bar. When I first started the novel it almost read like a sophisticated chick-lit story, but as I delved further in I realised it wasn’t chick-lit at all, it’s literary fiction at it’s finest. Towles has created fascinating characters who feel as real as your best friends, you feel like you know them inside out, and nothing is obvious or predictable in Katey Kontent’s world. There were a lot of interesting back-stories as well, for example there was some mention of Katey being the daughter of a Russian immigrant who came to New York to create a better life for his family. All these little details helped the characters become real in a sense. There is something really satisfying about finally getting to witness a fictional character having to work hard in life to get to where she wants to be, just like you and me.
Tinker is a very intriguing character it has to be said. He appears out of no where with his engraved cigarette lighter and tailored suits, and has such an influence on Evelyn and Katey that he laps it up, enjoying the company of them both at the same time. Tinker reveals very little about his past leaving the girls to assume that he has come from a wealthy family. Tinker has a struggling relationship with his brother, an artist, who refuses to take any of Tinker’s money and instead chooses to try to live off of his talent. The big thing about Tinker is that he lives by a set of rules – the Rules of Civility, as recorded by George Washington himself. There is a list of these rules in the back of the book and some of them are very amusing to read. They are a set of rules by which a man must live which will ensure he is well-mannered and respected by all. The way in which Tinker has adapted these rules to his life, for the sake of conscience, is perhaps the most shocking thing of all. All will be revealed to you as you read this novel…
The way Rules of Civility opens is with Katey, many years later, attending a photography exhibition with her husband, Val. So, the most heart-breaking thing about this book is that as much as you might root for Tinker and Katey, ultimately you know that they never end up together. And trust me, I rooted for them many times, despite how pointless it may have been. This is the beauty of Amor Towles’ writing – he has the talent to make you care about these people as though you really know them.
I can’t recommend this book enough. Not only is the writing beautiful but the story is so incredibly moving that it will stay with you for a long, long time. It still hasn’t left me and I know it will be the same for anyone who reads it. It is already receiving lots of great reviews online so I’d urge you not to miss out on this fantastic gem of a book. It will make you look at your own destiny, and the fate of your life and those around you. But most of all it will leave you with hope and it will inspire you.
Rules of Civility is published on 21st July by Sceptre.
- Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – review (guardian.co.uk)