Rules Of Civility: A Novel

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Rules Of Civility: A Novel

by Amor Towles

Penguin Publishing Group | June 26, 2012 | Trade Paperback

Rules Of Civility: A Novel is rated 4.1667 out of 5 by 18.

The New York Times bestselling novel that "enchants on first reading and only improves on the second" (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

This sophisticated and entertaining first novel presents the story of a young woman whose life is on the brink of transformation. On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker, happens to sit down at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a year-long journey into the upper echelons of New York society—where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve. With its sparkling depiction of New York’s social strata, its intricate imagery and themes, and its immensely appealing characters, Rules of Civility won the hearts of readers and critics alike.

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 352 pages, 8.41 × 5.45 × 0.89 in

Published: June 26, 2012

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0143121162

ISBN - 13: 9780143121169

Found in: Fiction and Literature

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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Evocative and Engaging A great read set in New York City during the 1930s!
Date published: 2015-03-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Engaging historical read After seeing an old friend in a photographic exhibition about the 1930's, Katy reminisces about the man in the picture - Tinker Grey. Hr is as enigmatic as Jay Gatsby, with a mysterious past as well. Katy and her friend Eve vie for Tinker's affections until the events of one evening send the three friends on different paths. Where this will leads them kept me enthralled to the end. And the detailed portrayal of the time period and people living in it was spot on.
Date published: 2013-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from In my top ten This was one of those books that I wish I could erase it from my mind so I could re-read it and have it be new to me all over again. I loved it. I dog-eared pages. I wrote down quotes from it. It's beautifully written and has become one of my all time favorites. Can't say a bad word about it.
Date published: 2013-01-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved it Loved this book.
Date published: 2012-11-26
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not sure what the point of this book is? This book was written with such disorganization, that at times I wondered which character the author was referring to? The story rambled on and on for no particular reason. The most difficult thing to swallow was how the author skipped over the great depression in the heart of New York City. Slogged it out to the end, but I would never recommend it to anyone to read.
Date published: 2012-11-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting premise, but hard to follow at times Katey Kontent is in her 20's, living in the 1930's of bustling New York City. Sharing a flat with her good friend Eve, they meet a charming ingenue named Tinker Grey at a jazz bar one evening. From the moment that this trio meet, it's a whirlwind friendship full of complicated feelings. Working in a law firm's secretarial pool, Katey has dreams to become more and her ambitions and growing network open up a world of possibilities. As she climbs the social (and career) ladder, Katey gets a taste of how things can be if you're successful, and how some things aren't always what they appear to be on the surface. The story begins many years down the road, as Katey is wandering an art gallery and spots her old friend Tinker in one of the art pieces. Thus begins a trip down memory lane, which was quite an adventurous journey. I had heard great things about this book, and with it being set in New York City with a female main character coming up in her own light, it definitely caught my interest. Unfortunately, it was a bit difficult for me to stay focused on. There was a lot of dialogue, and with the way conversations were formatted in the book (using dashes rather than quotation marks) I felt it a bit confusing to follow. At times, it took me a moment to realize it was still the same person that was talking, or it had switched to the narrative in the same line and actually no longer what was being said out loud. Not necessarily difficult to figure out, but it did make for a more disjointed read, not flowing as easily. I did feel that the three main characters, plus a few of the supporting cast, to be very strongly developed. There was often times that I really did wonder why Katey would be friends with someone as seemingly aloof and flaky as Eve. Whether that was the author's choice or a statement on the personality of Katey, I'm not sure. With a myriad of characters though, I felt it a bit confusing as to who was who, since some important characters were introduced so fleetingly and some that seemed to have a significant moment with Katey are then never to be mentioned again. There was one plot point in the last quarter of the book that I thought was headed towards a "The Help" moment, and there was some promise to that but was then dropped from the story. I wish that scene had happened earlier in the book, to allow for more development on it but perhaps the vision for this book was more about the web of characters, and Katey's career was just a subplot. Setting that aside however, I did enjoy the time and place that Rules of Civility was set in. The 1930's were a very distinctive period in time and seeing that through the eyes of a woman growing up in one of the busiest cities was quite interesting. The premise of the book is definitely what sticks with me more than the individual characters' lives. This, and other reviews can be found on
Date published: 2012-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Smart, terrific, charming This novel transports you totally to a different time and place. Beautifully written with rich, flowing language and interesting characters. Great entertainment all the way through.
Date published: 2012-09-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic book I enjoyed this book soo much! It is frank, the storyteller is a no nonsense kind of gal with a lot of courage. Loved it.
Date published: 2012-09-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not to be missed! This book is awesome! I love the story! I love the characters! I love the time and music! This is not a love story by the way =)
Date published: 2012-08-29
Rated out of 5 by from What a fabulous book! It was a majority decision by my book-club cohorts. I had never heard of it. This first time author captured the essence of the era - and took us on an enchanting ride and made us feel part of the story. I giggled, I laughed out loud, and I even shed a tear - I can't believe I'm writing this. It's one of the few books I will not be passing on - I want to read it again ... somewhere down the road. I was sorry to reach the last page.
Date published: 2012-08-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Must Read One of the best stories I've read in a long time, in large part due to the style of writing. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2012-08-08

– More About This Product –

Rules Of Civility: A Novel

Rules Of Civility: A Novel

by Amor Towles

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 352 pages, 8.41 × 5.45 × 0.89 in

Published: June 26, 2012

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0143121162

ISBN - 13: 9780143121169

Read from the Book

It was the last night of 1937.With no better plans or prospects, my roommate Eve had dragged me back to The Hotspot, a wishfully named nightclub in Greenwich Village that was four feet underground.From a look around the club, you couldn’t tell that it was New Year’s Eve. There were no hats or streamers; no paper trumpets. At the back of the club, looming over a small empty dance floor, a jazz quartet was playing loved-me-and-left-me standards without a vocalist. The saxophonist, a mournful giant with skin as black as motor oil, had apparently lost his way in the labyrinth of one of his long, lonely solos. While the bass player, a coffee-and-cream mulatto with a small deferential mustache, was being careful not to hurry him. Boom, boom, boom, he went, at half the pace of a heartbeat.The spare clientele were almost as downbeat as the band. No one was in their finery. There were a few couples here and there, but no romance. Anyone in love or money was around the corner at Café Society dancing to swing. In another twenty years all the world would be sitting in basement clubs like this one, listening to antisocial soloists explore their inner malaise; but on the last night of 1937, if you were watching a quartet it was because you couldn’t afford to see the whole ensemble, or because you had no good reason to ring in the new year.We found it all very comforting.We didn’t really understand what we were listening to, but we could tell that it had its advantages. It wasn’t going to r
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From the Publisher

The New York Times bestselling novel that "enchants on first reading and only improves on the second" (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

This sophisticated and entertaining first novel presents the story of a young woman whose life is on the brink of transformation. On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker, happens to sit down at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a year-long journey into the upper echelons of New York society—where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve. With its sparkling depiction of New York’s social strata, its intricate imagery and themes, and its immensely appealing characters, Rules of Civility won the hearts of readers and critics alike.

About the Author

Amor Towles was born and raised just outside Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale University and received an MA in English from Stanford University, where he was a Scowcroft Fellow. After working more than twenty years as an investment professional, Towles now writes full time. He is also the author of the novella Eve in Hollywood, available as an e-book. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.

Editorial Reviews

 Praise for Rules of Civility“An irresistible and astonishingly assured debut about working class-women and world-weary WASPs in 1930s New York…in the crisp, noirish prose of the era, Towles portrays complex relationships in a city that is at once melting pot and elitist enclave – and a thoroughly modern heroine who fearlessly claims her place in it.” —O, the Oprah Magazine“With this snappy period piece, Towles resurrects the cinematic black-and-white Manhattan of the golden age…[his] characters are youthful Americans in tricky times, trying to create authentic lives.” —The New York Times Book Review“This very good first novel about striving and surviving in Depression-era Manhattan deserves attention…The great strength of Rules of Civility is in the sharp, sure-handed evocation of Manhattan in the late ‘30s.” —Wall Street Journal“Put on some Billie Holiday, pour a dry martini and immerse yourself in the eventful life of Katey Kontent…[Towles] clearly knows the privileged world he’s writing about, as well as the vivid, sometimes reckless characters who inhabit it.” —People“[A] wonderful debut novel…Towles [plays] with some of the great themes of love and class, luck and fated encounters that animated Wharton’s novels.” —The Chicago Tribune“Glittering…filled with snappy dialogue, sharp observations and an array of terrifically drawn characters…Towles writes with grace and verve about the mores and manners of a society on the cusp of radical change.” — “Glamorous Gotham
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Bookclub Guide


Five years ago, three friends and I set out to read some of the "great books"—or those works of literature that would merit rereading several times over the course of our lives. Meeting once a month, we started with Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and have since worked through the works of Twain and Faulkner, Cervantes and García Marquez, Tolstoy and Nabokov—dwelling over dinner on our favorite passages, on themes and ambiguities, sharing our perspectives.

As someone who has written quietly for twenty years, the notion that a group might gather to discuss a book of mine seems something so fantastic it must be a mirage. So, if you've come this far, I owe you my heartfelt thanks.

What follows are some questions for discussion that might have surfaced in my reading group. If you are interested, there is additional content regarding Rules of Civility at including brief essays on Walker Evans and jazz, a 1930s time capsule, etcetera. You may also submit your thoughts or questions there. And if your reading group is meeting for dinner in New York somewhere between Canal and 34th streets, please let me know. If my schedule allows, I will try to stop by.

Amor Towles
New York, New York, 2011



Amor Towles was born and raised just outside Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale University and received an MA in English from Stanford University, where he was a Scowcroft Fellow. He is a principal at an investment firm in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife and two children. This is his first novel.



Q. Why did you decide to write a book set in the late 1930s, and how did you research the period?

I've always had a great interest in the period between 1900 and 1940—because it was a time of such incredible creative combustion.

In retrospect, the pace of change in the arts and industry in the nineteenth century seems pretty glacial. Painting, music, the novel, architecture were all evolving, but at a pretty observable pace. Then in the span of a few decades you have James Joyce, Cubism, Surrealism, jazz, Nijinsky, Henry Ford, the skyscraper, Sigmund Freud, the Russian Revolution, movies, airplanes, and the general upending of received forms in almost every area of human endeavor.

Over the years, I listened to the music, saw the movies, read the novels and manifestos, lingered in front of the paintings. So I really didn't do any applied research for the book. Rather, I tried to rely on my secondhand familiarity with the period to orient my imagination.

Q. Why did you decide to write a book from the perspective of a young woman?

Some writers such as John Cheever and Raymond Carver, seem to draw artistic energy from analyzing the realm of their own experiences—their social circles and memories and mores. I'm one of those who draw creative energy from the opposite. I prefer to put myself in an environment that's further afield and look through the eyes of someone who differs from me in age, ethnicity, gender, and/or social class. I think a little displacement makes me a sharper observer. It's that challenge of trying to imagine what's on top of the—the small thing that's always there on the periphery that somehow brings events into focus.

Q. Were there any personal influences from the 1930s that informed the book?

None of the characters in the book are based on anyone in particular. But three of my grandparents and a great-grandmother lived into their late 90s or early 100s. My maternal grandparents lived across the street from me in the summers and I'd see them every day. Over lunch when I was in my twenties, it was great fun to talk with them about their lives between the wars—when they were young adults. My grandmother, who was simultaneously a woman of manners and verve, fended off marriage proposals until she was thirty because she was having too much fun to settle down. Like the book's narrator, she pushed a rival in furs to drink before ultimately accepting my grandfather's proposal.

To some degree, these conversations (with my grandmother in particular) solidified my view that her generation was less Victorian than my parents' generation. I think the 1920s and 1930s had a certain openness that was countered by the conformity of the 1950s.

Q. Talk about the role of chance encounters in the book.

One of the central themes in the book is how chance meetings and offhand decisions in one's twenties can define one's life for decades to come. I think there is something universal about this dynamic; but it was certainly my experience.

In 1989, I had a fellowship to teach for Yale in China for two years. I came back from California to New Haven to spend the summer learning Chinese, but because of Tiananmen Square, Yale cancelled the program. They gave us each a few thousand dollars and sent us on our way. I had all my belongings in my car and had no idea what to do with myself. As it turned out, an old friend needed a roommate in New York to split the rent, so I moved here.

My first night in the city, I got invited to a party at the home of an acquaintance. There, I met a few people who ultimately became close friends. In retrospect, a number of careers and marriages sprang from the intersection of social circles at that party—but we certainly didn't realize the importance of the encounters at the time. We were just meeting for drinks, making haphazard alliances and cursory decisions, shaping our futures unwittingly.

Q. Do you think Katey's story could have occurred somewhere other than New York?

I certainly hope so. I think the book's themes of self-invention, aspiration, love and loss, are recognizable in any corner of America. But one interesting aspect of New York is that it is a leading capital for advertising, art, broadcasting, fashion, finance, food, journalism, music, publishing, theater, and so on. This means that every year, young people from all over the world with very different backgrounds, interests, and ambitions descend on the city. They are all looking to establish connections (in the E. M. Forster sense as well as the Dale Carnegie sense). This just increases the odds that the person you sit next to at a diner could change your life in very unexpected ways.

Q. Tell us about George Washington and his Rules of Civility.

I'm very interested in periods where there is a density of creative invention: Like the early Renaissance in Tuscany (with Massacio, della Francesca, Botticelli and Donatello), or jazz in the late 50s in New York (with Davis and Coltrane and Monk and Gillespie); or crime drama on TV in the 70s (with Kojak, Rockford, McGarrett, and Columbo). Throughout history there seem to be these brief periods when a group of varied talents come together and advance a whole art form by leaps and bounds. In some semi-competitive or cooperative dialogue, the players bring out the best in each other by spurring inspiration and risk taking, while defining new forms and frontiers. When I find a period like this I like to delve.

One of those periods for me is the revolutionary period in America. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin were all men of such sweeping talent and character. In an incredibly short period, they formulated a system of ideals and practical applications, which has served us well for centuries.

Initially, I imagined Tinker as an avid student of the period. But once into the book, I happened to pull a collection of Washington's writings off my shelf, which led off with his "Rules of Civility"—and I knew right away that the "Rules" should be the primary thing that Tinker had studied. My book investigates social stratification & manners, character & appearance, ideals & compromise—and Washington's youthful list somehow seems at the heart of the whole crazy matter.

Q. The book investigates the nuances of social strata in the 1930s. Do you think the influence of class is the same in today's America?

I'm not a sociologist, but it seems to me that the composition of America's social strata has changed in meaningful ways since the first half of the century. The Second World War and the GI Bill were great leveling influences, in which many working class individuals migrated from their ethnic communities toward a more homogenous middle class. At the same time, the aristocratic families of the 1920s began to abandon the outward pomp of cotillions and tails. Wonder Bread, Budweiser and Chock Full o'Nuts found their place in pantries high and low (with consistency and low price being attained at the expense of differentiation and flavor). This convergence has had weird byproducts: The vast of majority of Americans, spanning a wide array of economics (from the statistically rich to the statistically poor), now identify themselves as "middle class." And where in the first half of the century the struggling youth would have aspired to the narrow circles of aristocracy, in recent decades the affluent youth have aspired to the fashion and cadences of the inner city.

But having made these rough generalizations about transformation, I'd say that many aspects of the 1930s social behavior still prevail. We clearly still live in an aspirational society. We have just exited half a decade when virtually every tier of the American economy has borrowed money in order to buy bigger cars and bigger houses with better fixtures. And we still have American youth in pursuit of mobility, though mobility today may mean getting to wear sneakers at a start-up, rather than being accepted to a country club.

Q. Could you describe how the book was written?

In my late thirties and early forties, I wrote a novel set in the farmlands of Stalinist Russia, which I ultimately stuck in a drawer. It's pretty depressing to work on something for seven years and dislike the outcome.

That book had five points of view and a series of complex events that had been roughly outlined. As an investment professional with two young children, this structure proved hellish. Every time I sat down to work on the book, I needed two hours just to figure out where I was. Worst of all, in rereading later drafts, I often found that the material from the first year was the best.

So in launching a new book, I decided it would be a distinctive first person narrative; all events and characters would be carefully imagined in advance; and it would be written in one year. After a few weeks of preparation, I started Rules of Civilityon January 1, 2006, and wrapped it up 365 days later. The book was designed with twenty-six chapters, because there are fifty-two weeks in the year and I allotted myself two weeks to draft, revise and bank each chapter.

I revised the book thoroughly three times over the next three years (mostly making it shorter); but the original constraint of a twelve-month draft proved a much more effective artistic process for me than an open-ended one. Not coincidentally, the book opens on New Year's Eve and ends a year later.

Q. What have you been reading?

Around the time I turned forty, in reading Where Shall Wisdom Be Found, Harold Bloom's tribute to reading literature for wisdom, I was struck by how little time I had left to read seriously. I figured I was lucky if I could read one book deeply per month. If I lived to 80, that was 480 more books. With that shocking consideration as a backdrop, three friends and I formed a group to read extraordinary works of literature.

The acid test for books of inclusion has been that they have been proven by history to merit multiple readings in a lifetime. We started with Remembrance of Things Past and then read works of Twain, Whitman, Dickinson, and Thoreau as a precursor to reading works of Faulkner. Then we did Cervantes and Borges before reading García Marquez. Last year we read through Nabokov's American period and we have now moved on to Tolstoy.

  • At the outset, Rules of Civility appears to be about the interrelationship between Katey, Tinker, and Eve; but then events quickly lead Eve and Tinker offstage. Are Dicky Vanderwhile, Wallace Wolcott, Bitsy, Peaches, Hank, and Anne Grandyn as essential to Katey's "story" as Tinker and Eve? If so, what role do you think each plays in fashioning the Katey of the future?

  • Katey observes at one point that Agatha Christie "doles out her little surprises at the carefully calibrated pace of a nanny dispensing sweets to the children in her care." Something similar could be said of how Katey doles out information about herself. What sort of things is Katey slow to reveal, and what drives her reticence?

  • After seeing Tinker at Chinoisserie, Katey indicts George Washington's "Rules of Civility" as "A do-it yourself charm school. A sort of How to Win Friends and Influence People 150 years ahead of its time." But Dicky sees some nobility in Tinker's aspiration to follow Washington's rules. Where does your judgment fall on Tinker? Is Katey wholly innocent of Tinker's crime? Where does simulation end and character begin? Which of Washington's rules do you aspire to?

  • A central theme in the book is that a chance encounter or cursory decision in one's twenties can shape one's course for decades to come. Do you think this is true to life? Were there casual encounters or decisions that you made, which in retrospect were watershed events?

  • When I told my seven-year-old son that I had written a book that was going to be published, he said: That's great! But who is going to do the pictures? While the Walker Evans portraits in the book may not meet my son's standards of illustration, they are somewhat central to the narrative. In addition, there are the family photographs that line Wallace Wolcott's wall (including the school picture in which Tinker appears twice); there are the photographs of celebrities that Mason Tate reviews with Katey at Condé Nast; there are the pictures that end up on Katey and Valentine's wall. Why is the medium of photography a fitting motif for the book? How do the various photographs serve its themes?

  • One of the pleasures of writing fiction is discovering upon completion of a project that some thread of imagery has run through the work without your being aware—forming, in essence, an unintentional motif. While I was very conscious of photography as a motif in the book, and the imagery of fairy tales, here are two motifs that I only recognized after the fact: navigation (expressed through references to the Odyssey; to the shipwrecks of the Titanic, Endurance, and Robinson Crusoe; and through Thoreau's reckoning and pole star metaphors); and the blessed and the damned (expressed through scattered references to churches, paradise, the inferno, doomsday, redemption day, the pietà and the language of the Gospels). What role do these motifs play in the thematic composition of the book? And if you see me in an airport, can you please explain them to me?

  • Upon completion of this book, one of my guilty pleasures has been imagining how Eve was doing in Hollywood. When Eve says, "I like it just fine on this side of the windshield," what does she mean? And why is the life Tinker offers her so contrary to the new life she intends to pursue? If you register at my Web site, on the first of the year I will send you a short story on Eve's progress.

  • When Tinker sets out on his new life, why does he intend to start his days saying Katey's name? What does he mean when he describes Katey as someone of "such poise and purpose"? Is the book improved by the four sections from Tinker's point of view, or hindered by them?

  • T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is referenced in the book's preface and its epilogue. Why is that poem somehow central to Katey's 1969 reflections on her 1938 experiences?

  • Please don't answer this last question until the wine bottles are empty and the servers are waiting impatiently to clear your table: In the epilogue, Katey observes that "Right choices are the means by which life crystallizes loss." What is a right choice that you have made and what did you leave behind as a result?