three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
55-Nov-Dec-2011
By: 
Amor Towles
user_rating: 
0

A-Rules of CivilityNew York-based investor Amor Towles caused a stir when he received a major advance from British publisher Sceptre with little more than a story outline. Towles, who has degrees in English from Yale and Stanford, wrote Rules of Civility within a year. Now, Viking brings this novel to the United States.

The Story: Katey Kontent, a newly orphaned 25-year-old Russian émigré, is navigating her way through the social world of 1930s Manhattan. Intelligent, vivacious, and highly spirited, Katey soon finds herself on a meteoric rise through the city's social hierarchy. She soon befriends and becomes roommates with the adventurous Eve. At a nightclub, the women meet Theodore "Tinker" Grey, and even though Eve is attracted to him initially, a romance between Katey and Tinker blossoms. But as Katey continues to make great leaps in her career, moving from secretary to editor at a major New York literary magazine in a man's world, the relationship starts to fracture. Decades later, in 1966, Katey looks back at the most memorable year of her life.
Viking. 352 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780670022694

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"With this snappy period piece, Towles resurrects the cinematic black-and-white Manhattan of the golden age of screwball comedy, gal-pal camaraderie and romantic mischief. ... These pages prompt recollections of movie scenes stamped so deeply on the psyche that they feel remembered: elevated trains, Carole Lombard and Jimmy Stewart, smoky jazz clubs and men in fedoras." Liesl Schillinger

NPR 4 of 5 Stars
"Like the literary touchstones he evokes--F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss--Towles ... writes with grace and verve about the mores and manners of a society on the cusp of radical change. Towles uses the somewhat contrived device of a long flashback to tell his story, but it works." Heller McAlpin

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"For all the pleasures of a short course in themes of great American literature with none of the homework, read Rules of Civility. ... Towles has a lovely way with language and a deft wit, and his characters are that rare thing, both convincing and surprising." Colette Bancroft

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If you want shopping at Bendel's, gin martinis at a debutante's mansion and jazz bands playing until 3am, Rules of Civility has it all and more. If you want something original that doesn't borrow at all from Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Great Gatsby or even Boardwalk Empire, you might be a little disappointed." Viv Groskop

New York Daily News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[The novel is] a wonderful taste of yesteryears, reminiscent in ways of F. Scott Fitzgerald. That the author is so influenced by one of America's greatest authors does the novel little harm. ... Regardless that he takes the clichéd route that freedom means nothing left to lose ... Towles offers up a convincing tale of a time and place worth revisiting." Sherryl Connelly

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The arc of the narrative is nothing really new. ... But it's how Towles shades in the story that's most interesting, elegantly drawing a picture of a time and place seldom depicted in the current culture." Olivia Barker

Telegraph (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"Rules of Civility is like a collage of the 20th century's greatest cultural hits: a glimpse of Edith Wharton here, a wink towards Hitchcock there, a blast of Cole Porter there. It all feels a bit second-hand, a bit pastiche. For all its sparkle, why have costume jewelry when you've paid for diamonds?" Elena Seymenliyska

Critical Summary

Almost every reviewer praised Towles's evocation of 1930s Manhattan--from his descriptions of its buildings to the snappy language socialites used in everyday conversation. Towles does not take any risks in the novel, however, and this is where some critics appeared to divide. All of them mentioned that Rules of Civility evokes Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby or some other derivative source, to generally favorable effect. Yet though a wide majority of these reviewers agreed that while the narrative is a familiar mash-up of earlier, greater, works, Towles still manages to make the story a light, entertaining, and enjoyable, if somewhat unchallenging, read. It's not wholly original‚ but, then again, many good reads aren't.