Book Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Title: Rules of Civility
Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 978-0670022694
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This book came out of nowhere and totally wowed me. I’ve never heard of Amor Towles, but on this showing I think we’ll all be hearing a lot more about him.

Clever, witty and very well written, this is the tale of a year in the life of Katey Kontent, an ambitious, intelligent young New Yorker. The year in question is 1938, when the Depression is beginning to lift and war has not yet cast a shadow. Life is full of possibilities and Katey and her friend Eve are determined to live it to the full. A chance encounter with handsome, rich and single Tinker Grey is destined to change all their lives in the course of the year and set them on the eventual paths they will follow into the future.

The American Dream is encapsulated in this novel, in all its naked ambition and superficiality. To be rich, to be beautiful, to be successful – these are the things that are important. And does it matter how these things are achieved? Manhattan seems to think not, and Katey and her friends want to live the dream. Social climbing is everything and has never been more frothy or more fun – the jazz clubs, the martini drinking, the partying.

I’m sure it’s been mentioned by other reviewers, but the Great Gatsby comparison is so obvious that I can’t ignore it. Tinker is a mysterious character in the Jay Gatsby mould, appearing seldom in the text, but casting a shadow over Katey and hence the novel, for the duration of the text. That I can mention Great Gatsby and genuinely not think that The Rules of Civility should feel shy in such exalted company is a testament to the quality of Towles novel.

I find it hard to believe that this is a debut book, as the writing is so self assured, wonderful, atmospheric and well plotted. This is not light and fluffy chick lit. Nothing could be further from that – this is a great novel and must easily be one of the best books about New York that I have read, for the city is easily amongst the characters that populate this novel.

It is not a book that you read and forget or discard. It has a pride of place on my shelf, waiting for other books by this author, who is certainly one to watch. However, for now, just enjoy this and be thankful that it was written. This is a love letter to the Big Apple of the Jazz era. It bursts from the pages, as large a character as any of the humans in the book and I defy any reader to not be as seduced by the place as Katey is.

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