15 Jan 2018

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

REVIEW BY ALYSON BAKER

Katey Kontent, daughter of an immigrant Russian family, reminisces about her life in New York after seeing photographs of some of her early friends in an exhibition. The story is one of post-depression, pre-2WW New York, of the WASP culture, the at once egalitarian/hierarchical society, and the many choices one makes that define a path through life.

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Katey rises up through her charm and intelligence – and luck. But she turns out to have not that clear an idea of her friends and their agendas. Eve, the opportunist? Tinker Grey, the rich guy turned poor guy made good guy? We are swept along with Katey through her relationships and her career, with history in the background and juniper and tonic and jazz bands in the foreground – always discovering more about the people in her circles. The focus switches between large scale views of commerce and skyscrapers and the Walden perspective of nature and being alone – “Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasures in the mundane – in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath – she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger.” As with his later A gentleman in Moscow Towles deals a lot in this novel with social conventions and what it is to be civil: “For what was civilisation but the intellect’s ascendance out of the doldrums of necessity …”. Rules of civility is an exquisite read.