'Rules of Civility' a rich novel

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 23, 2011

“Rules of Civility,” by Amor Towles. Viking. 352 pages. $26.95 hard cover; $12.99 Kindle; $39.95 audio.
By Elizabeth Cook
SALISBURY — Clever, erudite and well-grounded — much like its heroine — “Rules of Civility” is a stunner.
First-time author Amor Towles sets his morality tale in New York City in 1938, a jazzy, decadent time when martinis flowed freely and tuxedos were de rigueur.
At least, that was the case for the upper crust, a level to which 25-year-old heroine Katey Kontent — emphasis on the tent — aspires, but only on her own terms. Having grown up motherless in a blue-collar household, she bears a cool aloofness toward the wealthy, considering their money and privilege largely unearned.
When she and boardinghouse roommate Eve Ross first meet banker Tinker Grey in a jazz lounge on the last night of 1937, she sizes him up.
“He had that certain confidence in his bearing, that democratic interest in his surroundings, and that understated presumption of friendliness that are only found in young men who have been raised in the company of money and manners. It didn’t occur to people like this that they might be unwelcome in a new environment — and as a result, they rarely were.”
The story flows from this chance encounter and Katey’s assumptions — proving in the end that chance faces a formidable foe in determination, and that assumptions can be both encouraged and wrong.
Towles treats readers to an inside look at both sides of 1930s New York — glittery and gritty — as he weaves the story of Katey’s, Eve’s and Tinker’s evolving relationships. From the music people sought out to the furnishings in their apartments and the expressions in their repartee, he recreates the era to serve as a powerful backdrop.
Others have compared “Rules of Civility” to “The Great Gatsby,” as in, “The rich are different from you and me.” But even Gatsby is no match for Katey, Eve and Tinker in complexity, and their story has a few more twists.
The book’s title comes from George Washington’s “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” a 110-item list Washington compiled as a youth. Rule 1: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”
Katey finds a book of Washingtonia — speeches, letters and the list — in Tinker’s bookshelf, inscribed by his mother. How sweet, Katey thinks. But as the story progresses, the rules go from quaint keepsake to actor’s script to barbed commentary, an appropriate prop to the dramatic turn of events.
Rather than pity her own humble beginnings, Katey edges her way up through hard work and selective friendships.
If luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, Katey seems to be at the juncture to make introductions. She is well-prepared and, with some strategic risk-taking, works her way from a law office secretarial pool to writing for Conde Nast. No fawning or patronizing for her, she impresses people with level-headedness and wit.
The rich may be different, but they are not always so lucky, in her eyes.
“Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our masters’ wares with our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christies promise. We look around at the characters cast in our own lives — our heiresses and gardeners, our vicars and nannies, our late-arriving guests who are not exactly what they seem — and discover that before the end of the weekend all assembled will get their just desserts.”
Or will they? Towles’ twists leave room to wonder. After finishing “Rules of Civility,” readers will want to read it again to gauge the relationships they thought they understood. When they do, they’ll find the second read enlightening and easily as enjoyable as the first.