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Rules of Civility: A Novel Paperback – June 26, 2012
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, August 2011 Set during the hazy, enchanting, and martini-filled world of New York City circa 1938, Rules of Civility follows three friends--Katey, Eve, and Tinker--from their chance meeting at a jazz club on New Year's Eve through a year of enlightening and occasionally tragic adventures. Tinker orbits in the world of the wealthy; Katey and Eve stretch their few dollars out each evening on the town. While all three are complex characters, Katey is the story's shining star. She is a fully realized heroine, unique in her strong sense of self amidst her life's continual fluctuations. Towles' writing also paints an inviting picture of New York City, without forgetting its sharp edges. Reminiscent of Fitzgerald, Rules of Civility is full of delicious sentences you can sit back and savor (most appropriately with a martini or two). --Caley Anderson
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 TowlesPaperback edition.
“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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Top Customer Reviews
Along with happenstance and sheer ballsiness, Kate and Eve also use wit, intelligence and good looks to eventually claw their way into the upper echelons of society. The characters are far from stereotypical social climbers; Eve in particular is complex, mysterious and unpredictable. Kate, the central character, is tough and unflappable, taking both success and setback in stride, but often operating without a moral compass. She makes no apologies for her humble upbringing, which might be one of the few likable things about her, but she also makes no effort to stay in touch with her family or her past.
At one point Kate meets an old high school classmate on the street who is down on his luck. It would cost her nothing to be kind or at least courteous, yet she is condescending and dismissive and pretends not to know him when they’re both fully aware that she knows who he is.
In another instance, on the subway, Kate has no skin in the game, but she cynically contemplates an act of sabotage that borders on cruelty toward a woman she works with. At the last moment Kate decides not to go through with her sin of omission, but not because of her conscience; it is simply a whim.
Intentional or not, the book reads like a metaphor for many unappealing characteristics that we see in Americans today. I mean the ones who care only about themselves; they lack compassion, or have contempt for less fortunate, less educated, less lucky fellow Americans.
The book is crisply written and steadily entertaining, though at times the writing seems formulaic. It's a linear story with chapters or sections often starting in a familiar pattern: “At 3:45 on Friday the twenty-fourth…” or “On Sunday afternoon.” It felt a little like marching in lockstep with Kate as she cut a swath through high society while crossing items off her to-do list.
I don't want to give too much way, but I wish I could say that in the end, all these frivolous people got what they deserved, but it’s never that simple. [[ASIN:0984692908 Sugar Hill: Where The Sun Rose Over Harlem]
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. As Katey socializes with the well-to-do and the up-and-coming, she learns surprising secrets about the people in her life, including Tinker, and learns some things about herself, as well.
Katey is an outsider socializing with a privileged group of people (white, wealthy, and sophisticated), but she remains the grounded daughter of a working class Russian immigrant. She treasures her female friends. She neither hides nor flaunts her intelligence. She makes choices "with purpose and inspiration" although she comes to wonder about them in later years. Like most people who use their minds, she's filled with contradictions. Reading Walden, she values simplicity; she fears losing "the ability to take pleasure in the mundane -- in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath." At the same time, she enjoys fine dining and dressing well: "For what was civilization but the intellect's ascendancy out of the doldrums of necessity (shelter, sustenance, and survival) into the ether of the finely superfluous (poetry, handbags, and haute cuisine)?"
To varying degrees, the characters in this novel make mistakes (who doesn't?). As one character notes, "at any given moment we're all seeking someone's forgiveness." But when should forgiveness be granted? When does love require forgiveness? Towles avoids simplistic answers to these difficult questions; this isn't a melodrama in which characters ride out tragedies to arrive at a neat and happy ending. This is a nuanced novel that remains cautiously optimistic about life, crafted by a generous writer who sees the good in people who have trouble seeing it in themselves, a writer who believes people have the capacity for change.
Rules of Civility offers up occasional treats for readers in the form of brief passages from the books the characters are reading, snippets from Hemingway and Thoreau and Woolf, an ongoing description of an Agatha Christie novel. When Towles introduces a book editor as a character in the novel's second act, it seems clear that Towles shares the editor's old-fashioned respect for "plot and substance and the judicious use of the semicolon." Towles captures the essence of minor characters with a few carefully chosen words. In the same precise and evocative style he recreates 1938 Manhattan: neighborhoods, restaurants, fashions, and music. He writes in a distinctive voice, refined but street-smart, tailored to the era in which the novel is set. His dialog is sharp and sassy. The ending has a satisfying symmetry. If I could find something critical to say about this novel, I would, but I can't. I recommend it highly.