Rules of Civility is the debut novel of Amor Towles, also widely known for his book A Gentleman in Moscow. The novel is set in New York City, beginning in the 1960s but then jumping back to the last night of 1937. It centers around Katie, a 25-year-old secretary who is out for New Year’s with her friend Eve, when they meet rich gentleman Tinker Gray in a club.
Katie is drawn to him, but a car crash causes him to care for Eve instead. From there, the paths of these friends twist and turn throughout 1938, with friends leaving to fight in the Spanish Civil War and eventually, World War II.
What I loved about this story, and what I imagine so many love about Towles, is the complexity of his characters and the immersion into the sights and sounds of 1930s New York. Coming out of the Depression and on the eve of World War II, Towles never lets us forget where we are and when. Through Katie’s narration, we see the clothes, taste the cocktails, and hear the music of the time.
I very much appreciated that Katie wasn’t a perfect character, nor a simple one, and this was true of Tinker, Eve, and the other characters in the book. There are moments when Katie is selfish or careless of other’s feelings, but then she’d surprise me with an act of graciousness, like when a co-worker leaves an important document on the train and Katie chooses to rush after her with it. She cares about her friends but never loses sight of her own need to survive and to experience what life has to offer. Her feelings for Tinker lead her to explore relationships with others, and it’s these relationships that really build her character. This was anything but a simple love story.
In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
We know, from the framing of the first chapter, that Katie will marry someone named Val, which lends a certain mystery to the story. We know Tinker will experience wealth and poverty during his youth. I often enjoy knowing a little bit about where things will end up but not too much, and Towles does this perfectly. In fact I went back and listened to the prologue again as soon as I finished the book, just to see how Towles set everything up. I loved the way Towles writes about how people become themselves after a few stops on the subway, exposed to the people around them but intensely private as well.
I loved the audio version of the book, though the print/ebook version might have been just as good. The narrator, Rebecca Lowman, really conveyed Katie’s emotional growth and her sense of nostalgia looking back at her youth. As I reader I had a sense of Katie’s mature self, years in the future, and her immaturity at the time, which is a hard balance to pull off.
Despite its dramatic setting, this is a slow-moving, thoughtful story full of encounters and conversations. It’s a story of day-to-day life, of work and relationships, of building social networks and ultimately, of growing up and becoming adults. This is the kind of book you look back on and realize exactly how much was there.