Monday, June 27, 2011

A Review of Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

One of my favorite characters in Rules of Civility is Fran Pacelli, a five-foot-nine City College dropout from North Jersey who "unsettled the prim at the boardinghouse by wandering the halls without a shirt on and asking loudly if they had any extra booze." Another favorite is Evelyn Ross, a "surprising beauty from the American Midwest." When Evelyn passes out drunk in a New York City alley, the only clue to her identity is the library card the police find in her coat pocket.

A rebellious sort, Evelyn insists on reading Hemingway by "skipping ahead to anywhere but the beginning" because doing so puts "bit characters on equal footing" and "frees the protagonists from the tyranny of their tales." The protagonist in Rules of Civility is twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent—pronounced Kon-TENT, "like the state of being." Bored with her job and attracted to a banker she meets in a jazz club, Katey "embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society," and inevitably drifts away from interesting bit characters like Fran and Evelyn, the ones I would have liked to read more about.

At one point, Katey recalls an old family story about her father, a deceased Russian-immigrant who used to cook "closed-kitchen eggs" for Katey when she was a girl. According to her uncle, Katey's father burned his remaining Russian currency in a soup pot when he first arrived in New York, even though "the ruble was as widely accepted as the dollar in some neighborhoods." Katey goes on to burn her own currency, so to speak, encouraged by her father's obstinance and her rebellious friends. But since Katey turns out to be so reluctant and cautious, her own awkward path toward self-actualization is not terribly exciting.

Rules of Civility attempts to be "an implicit celebration of happenstance," a recognition of the potential and poetry of "spur of the moment decisions" and "chance encounters." But it's a bit overdone, much in the same way that New York City is explicitly romanticized as the place where these chance encounters are most likely to take place. It's hard to take seriously the character who laments, "The problem with being born in New York is you've got no New York to run away to."

I do like the emphasis on books and authors, though, from Ernest Hemingway to Agatha Christie. The title Rules of Civility is taken from George Washington's schoolboy primer consisting of 110 maxims on everything from table manners to obeying parents, the last and most profound of which is, "Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience."

When Katey finds a reprint of Washington's Rules of Civility in the banker Tinker Grey's apartment, she adopts it as sort of a philosophical approach to her own life. This complicates her relationship with Tinker, who relies on Henry David Thoreau's Walden as his guide, a book which thoroughly rejects social conventions. Can young lovers overcome such conflicting literary tastes?

And there are very interesting similarities between Rules of Civility and F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby. Both are set in and around New York between the world wars, and both use first-person narrators who reflect on past events. Both include car accidents and gas stations, old grieving fathers from the Midwest, party crashing at mansions overlooking Long Island Sound, and name changes: James Gatz to Jay Gatsby, Katya to Kate, Teddy to Tinker, and Eve to Evelyn.

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, "The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world."

And in Rules of Civility, Amor Towles writes, "For however inhospitable the wind, from that vantage point Manhattan was simply so beautiful, so elegant, so obviously full of promise—you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving."

But in the end, The Great Gatsby immortalizes a fall from civility and grace, while Rules of Civility tries to describe an ascent to it. The Great Gatsby will "gut you like a fish," while Rules of Civility manages "a semblance of rhythm and a surfeit of sincerity."

~Michael May, Adult Services

Rules of Civility: A Novel, debut literary fiction by Amor Towles, will be published on July 26, 2011 by Viking Adult.

This review was based on the digital galley obtained from Penguin Group USA through at

Please visit author Amor Towles's website at

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