Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2020

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

Like many others, I discovered the wit and finesse of US author Amor Towles with his bestselling A Gentleman in Moscow. Rules of Civility is his first novel, but Goodreads tells me that there is the prospect of a new novel in 2021, and in the meantime there is also Eve in Hollywood (2013) which is a series of short stories about one of the characters in Rules of Civility. Speaking for myself, I’d rather like the new novel to follow the fortunes of Tinker Grey… but I suspect I’d like anything that Towles writes.  I like his sense of humour and his sparkling dialogue, and Rules of Civility was great fun to read.

Bookended by brief chapters in the 1960s, the novel is set in  1938 as America was getting ready to make money out of the looming conflict in Europe.

The thing of it is — 1939 may have brought the beginning of the war in Europe, but in America it brought the end of the Depression. While they were annexing and appeasing, we were stoking the steel plants, reassembling the assembly lines, and readying ourselves to meet a worldwide demand for arms and ammunition.  In December 1940, with France already fallen and the Luftwaffe bombarding London, back in America Irving Berlin was observing how the treetops glistened and children listened to hear those sleigh bells in the snow.  That’s how far away we were from the Second World War. (p.316)

The narrative is triggered by middle-aged Katey Kontent seeing some photos in the Museum of Modern Art.  The photos, taken by the real life photographer Walker Evans, are of anonymous people on the New York subway,  and they include an old friend of hers, Theodore ‘Tinker’ Grey — one when he was looking poor and hungry and without prospects, and one in a cashmere coast, clean shaven, a crisp Windsor knot poking over the collar of a custom-made shirt.  Her husband Val makes the mistake of assuming that Tinker was a symbol of America as the land of opportunity, a place of rags to riches… but as the ensuing narrative shows, Tinker Grey was never what he seemed.

Nor was Katey.  In this momentous year she sheds her Russian immigrant background along with her real name Katya, and with her lively friend Evey manages with a mixture of luck and amusing effrontery, to make her way into New York society, with Tinker Grey as their entrée card.  There’s a lot of fun and flirting, a great deal of drinking, and the repartee is delicious.  The Cinderella elements blind the reader to the realities: just as we never wonder how Cinders managed to get the coal dust out of her fingers, we never wonder how the girls transcend the differences they notice in the dress and footwear of their wealthy friends, when their new compatriots don’t notice any disparities.  Not in appearance, education, cultural knowledge or accent.  Fairy tales are nice like that.

The fairy tale does not extend to the love triangle sorting itself out, but we knew that anyway from the beginning when we know that Katey is married to somebody else.  This is not a romance, it’s more of a coming-of-age.

The book is littered with allusions to books we all know, from Great Expectations to Agatha Christie, which Katey likes because Christie dishes out the kind of justice so often missing in the real world.  The book references are deliberate: Great Expectations, for example, alerts the reader to expect a surprise benefactor when Katey chucks in her lowly job in a secretarial pool and miraculously gets a more prestigious one at a swanky new magazine.  And the title, which comes from a piece of juvenilia from George Washington, has a significance that Katey doesn’t realise until her awakening.

If you are seeking a cheerful story and some light-hearted fun, this is the book for you.

Author: Amor Towles
Title: Rules of Civility
Publisher: Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, (Hachette UK), 2012
ISBN: 9781473688841, pbk., 324 pages
Source: personal library.

Available from Fishpond Rules of Civility or from your local indie bookshop.

 


Responses

  1. I did enjoy A Gentleman in Moscow. This one too looks to be a must read too so will follow it up.

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    • I hope you enjoy it. It’s going to be made into a film, which would be great, I think, lots of jazz music and gorgeous frocks and whatnot:)

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      • Correction, not a film, a TV series…

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  2. I have this on my TBR and have been wondering about it … can I find time to squeeze it in. I’m pretty sure it was sent to my by my Californian friend who read and enjoyed it. (Mine doesn’t have “from the bestselling author of …” on it!)

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    • It’s an easy read… I think it would bear re-reading because there are connections with the books that are referenced and so on, but it’s also just great on its own. I needed a bit of frivolity after all those Astleys!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m unsure about this, I did not enjoy A Gentleman in Moscow. Hmmm. I am loving Waiting by Philip Salmom though!

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    • Oh, Sue, say it isn’t so! A Gentleman in Moscow is one of those books that brings such good memories for me…
      But I’m pleased you like Waiting. It’s a beautiful book:)

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      • Sorry Lisa, but it is so! Waiting, however, is really, really nice to read in these times! I kept wondering who the two characters reminded me of, and then realised it was Pooh and Piglet!

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        • Yes… the kindness!

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          • And the big one and the little one – that famous picture of Pooh and Piglet walking together.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Light hearted fun would be good at the moment!

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    • Yes, I’ve been listening to some very solid stuff from the Edinburgh festival as well. I listen to 3-4 sessions a day, and do online jigsaws while I’m listening, and it’s all been pretty serious stuff. But good, very good, and so wonderful to be able to access it.
      As my wise old mother used to say, it’s an ill-wind that blows nobody any good, and I have to say C-19 ain’t all bad when I get to ‘go to’ the Edinburgh Festival!
      And the point is, of course, why did it have to wait for a pandemic to happen?

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  5. I really need to read this author. Of course, I have known that for quite some time, and it still hasn’t happened yet. There’s still time yet right?

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  6. Ah lovely! I adored “Gentleman…” so I will definitely keep an eye out for this!

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  7. I’m always happy to have in mind fun and lighthearted books.
    Thanks!

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    • I think you’ll love this one, Emma.

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  8. I read the two ‘Rules of Civility’ and ‘The Gentleman in Moscow’ in the opposite order from you with ‘Rules of Civility’ first. But I am like you in that I will read whatever Amor Towles writes next.

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    • He says on his Goodreads page that it takes him four years to write a novel… and I think that’s a good thing, not too many authors can churn out a good novel in a year or so…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Light hearted fun? Straight onto my library reserve list!! Thanks, Lisa. :-)

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  10. I don’t know Amor Towles, rings no bells at all. Unlike you, and some of your commenters, I dislike reading for “light hearted fun”. I prefer to devote my limited reading time to ‘worthy’ works – classics preferably.

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    • LOL Bill, how could I not have known that!

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  11. […] Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles — ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]

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  12. Ok I’m sold on this one. I loved A Gentleman in Moscow for it’s characterisation and setting and it seems Rules of Civility has the same elements. Onto my To buy list it goes.

    BTW I never realised White Christmas was 1939 – somehow I thought it was more 1950s. But what do I know???

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    • I think it’s because those films seem ageless…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I couldn’t resist the temptation to find out more – according to Wikipedia, there is some uncertainty about exactly when Berlin wrote the song. 1940 is considered the most likely. It was sung first by Bing Crosby on a radio programme in 1941, then recorded and released in 1942

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        • I may not ever have mentioned it, but The Spouse has considerable expertise in music of the period, and one thing that’s certain is that there’s a lot that isn’t documented. Often there’s no record of the arranger, or who was in the band or orchestra, and while sometimes these can be identified by the unique tone of the musician or some feature of the arranging, it’s not always so.

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