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Rules of Civility: A Novel Hardcover – July 26, 2011
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A sophisticated and entertaining debut novel about an irresistible young woman with an uncommon sense of purpose.
Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year- old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.
The story opens on New Year's Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne'er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.
Elegant and captivating, Rules of Civility turns a Jamesian eye on how spur of the moment decisions define life for decades to come. A love letter to a great American city at the end of the Depression, readers will quickly fall under its spell of crisp writing, sparkling atmosphere and breathtaking revelations, as Towles evokes the ghosts of Fitzgerald, Capote, and McCarthy.
You can listen to the playlist here.
While jazz is not central to the narrative of Rules of Civility, the music and its various formulations are an important component of the book’s backdrop.
On the night of January 16, 1938, Benny Goodman assembled a bi-racial orchestra to play jazz to a sold-out Carnegie Hall--the first jazz performance in the hallowed hall and one which is now famous for bringing jazz (and black performers) to a wider audience. I am not a jazz historian, but for me the concert marks something of a turning point in jazz itself--from the big-band, swing-era sound that dominated the 1930s (and which the orchestra emphasized on stage that night) towards the more introspective, smaller group styles that would soon spawn bebop and its smoky aftereffects (ultimately reaching an apogee with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue in 1957). For it is also in 1938 that Coleman Hawkins recorded the bebop antecedent "Body & Soul" and Minton’s Playhouse, one of the key bebop gathering spots, opened in Harlem. By 1939, Blue Note Records was recording, and Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were all congregating in New York City. From 1935-1939, Goodman himself was stepping out of the big-band limelight to make more intimate improvisational recordings with a quartet including Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton.
My assertion of this as a turning point (like most such assertions) is rough, inexact and misleading, but it helps give shape to an evolution and bring into relief two ends of a jazz spectrum. On the big-band front, the power of the music naturally springs from the collective and orchestration. In numbers like "Sing, Sing, Sing," the carefully layered, precisely timed waning and waxing of rhythm and instrumentation towards moments of unified musical ecstasy simply demand that the audience collaborate through dance, cheers, and other outward expressions of joy. While in the smaller groups of bebop and beyond, the expressive power springs more from the soloist and his personal exploration of the music, his instrument, and his emotional state at that precise moment in time. This inevitably inspires in the listener a cigarette, a scotch, and a little more introspection. In a sense, the two ends of this jazz spectrum are like the public/private paradox of Walker Evans’s subway photographs (and of life in the metropolis itself.)
If you are interested, I have created an playlist of music from roughly 1935-1945 that spans this transition. The playlist is not meant to be comprehensive or exact. Among other items, it includes swinging live performances from Goodman’s Carnegie Hall Concert as well as examples of his smaller group work; there are precursors to bebop like Coleman Hawkins and some early Charlie Parker. As a strange historical footnote, there was a strike in 1942–1944 by the American Federation of Musicians, during which no official recordings were made. As such, this period at the onset of bebop was virtually undocumented and thus the records of 1945 reflect something of a culmination of early bebop rather than its starting point. The playlist also reflects the influence of the great American songbook giants (Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins), many of whom were at the height of their powers in the 1930s. --Amor Towles
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.” —NPR.org
“Glamorous Gotham in one to relish…a book that enchants on first reading and only improves on the second.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
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More About the Author
Published in July 2011, his novel RULES OF CIVILITY has been translated into 15 languages. In America it was on the bestseller lists of the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times. The book was ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the ten best works of fiction in 2011 and its French translation received the 2012 Prix Fitzgerald. In June 2013, his novella EVE IN HOLLYWOOD, which follows a character from RULES OF CIVILITY, was published by Penguin as an ebook. Mr. Towles's only other published work is a short story cycle called "The Temptations of Pleasure" which appeared in the Paris Review in 1989.
Mr. Towles is an ardent fan of early 20th century painting, 1950's jazz, 1970's cop shows, rock & roll on vinyl, obsolete accessories, manifestoes, breakfast pastries, pasta, liquor, snow-days, Tuscany, Provence, Disneyland, Hollywood, the cast of Casablanca, 007, Captain Kirk, Bob Dylan (early, mid, and late phases), the wee hours, card games, cafés, and the cookies made by both of his grandmothers.
Top Customer Reviews
The novel's preface opens in 1966, with a happily married couple attending a Walker Evans photography exhibition. An unlikely chance encounter stuns the woman, Katey--a picture of a man staring across a canyon of three decades, a photograph of an old friend. Thus begins the flashback story of Katey's roaring twenties in the glittering 30's.
Katey Kontent (Katya) is the moral center of the story, an unapologetic working girl--more a bluestocking than a blue blood-- born in Brighton Beach of Russian immigrant parents. She's an ambitious and determined statuesque beauty à la Tierney or Bacall who seeks success in the publishing industry. She works as hard by day as she plays at night. Her best friend, Eve (Evelyn) Ross, is a Midwest-born Ginger Rogers /Garbo character mix, with jazz cat spirit and a fearless, cryptic glamor. She refuses daddy's money and embraces her free spirit:
"I'm willing to be under anything...as long as it isn't somebody's thumb."
Katey and Eve flirt with shameless savoir-faire, and are quick with the clever repartees. They will kiss a man once that they'll never kiss twice, and glide with effortless élan among all the social classes of New York. Moreover, they can make a few dollars stretch through many a martini, charming gratis drinks from fashionable men.Read more ›
The story begins in 1966 but quickly turns back to 1938, the most eventful year in Katey's life. Katey and her friend Eve meet Tinker Grey, a charming young banker, at a jazz club on New Year's Eve. Their blossoming three-way friendship takes an unexpected turn when Eve is injured in an accident while Tinker is driving. Tinker's apparent preference for Katey shifts to Eve as she recuperates. Months later, something happens to cause a change in their relationship, giving Tinker a more important role in Katey's life. Along the way, Katey's career is leaping forward: from reliable member of a law firm's secretarial pool to secretary at a staid publishing house to gofer and then editorial assistant at a trendy magazine.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Very interesting read, especially if you are familiar with New York City.Published 1 month ago by Kathleen D.
I still think about this book. I also bought George Washington's Rules of Civility. I read this book about four years ago and still think of it. Read morePublished 1 month ago by pamiam
I was surprised I liked the book- I'm not normally interested in stories about that time period, but after seeing the number of 5 star reviews i took a chance. Well done!Published 1 month ago by SueS
This is a book that piques the interest because of the timing (late '30s with some slight book-ends in the 60's). Read morePublished 2 months ago by Patricia P.
I liked it. It was a good read. I love the humor and pathos. Perfectly juxtposed. I'm amazed that this is a debut novel. It's very well written. Read morePublished 2 months ago by skisno
I loved this book from the beginning. It is a breath of fresh air. Well written. I would read everything he writes.Published 2 months ago by K.A. M