Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

A quick rundown… Katey Kontent is trying to make her way slowly upward in 1938 New York. A chance meeting with Tinker Grey causes her star to rise as the year goes on – but how much of this is real?

Strengths: Love the opening, the atmosphere created in the book is fantastic.

Weaknesses: Occasionally lost track of who some people were, otherwise none.

Why I read it: On my wish list and bought on my recent holiday to Singapore

Pages: 352

Published: 2011

Publisher: Penguin US

Setting: New York City

Rating: 9 out of 10

If you liked this, try: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’ve struggled for several days to write this opening paragraph. Why? It’s because Rules of Civility is a fantastic book and I want to do it justice in my review. Picked up on my recent holiday to Singapore, I feel bad for passing this by in the bookstore at home. It’s a book that completely engulfs you – you are immersed in the setting with the characters.

The book starts at the end – Katey and her husband are attending the opening of a show of clandestine pictures taken in the subway in the 1930s. (Note that this really did happen, and there are pictures throughout the book from the exhibition by Walker Evans – worth a look). There she sees an old friend not once, but twice – Tinker Grey. In one picture, he looks dapper and well-fed. In the other, malnourished and grimy. So what caused this change?

We then move back in time to 1938 New York City, which tells the story of how Katey met Tinker Grey and how their lives became entwined. Katey moves from one social circle to another – from grimy jazz bars to sprawling mansions. Tinker fades in and out and Katey gradually begins to realise that all is not what it seems. She struggles with the sense of right and wrong – who is she to judge? But shouldn’t we be honest to those we love and ourselves?

I read this book in two days. The book brings New York to life – the reader can clearly see the buildings, hear the noise and smell the city. Towles’ ability to do this is masterful – exceptional for a first novel! The characters are also well drawn, especially Katey. We can almost feel her brain ticking over as she tries to figure out who is – and isn’t – telling the truth. Some of the minor characters – particularly the social climbers merge into one though. While being a historical novel, the narrative also has a contemporary feel to it. I don’t mean that the setting is taken out of context, but that the book speaks to you like you are living side by side with Katy. It also captures the air of desolation around the Great Depression.

You might be wondering where the title comes from. It’s from a list that George Washington (yes, that one) made as a youngster. Tinker believes it to be his rules for living successfully in society.

It’s interesting to note that the book cover above – the American edition – has the same cover picture as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in Australia! Although the picture would do both books justice (but I can’t imagine Katey lounging around like that – Eve, perhaps).


See? It’s interesting that two books that are quite alike in my head should even look similar.

I loved this book and can’t wait to see what Amor Towles comes up with next. I love that the subway pictures were used as a contrast to the themes of the book – while waiting for our train ride to end, we show our truthful selves. But in the street, we look and act how others want to see us.

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14 thoughts on “Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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  1. This book is on my wishlist and I’m really looking forward to reading it, especially after reading your wonderful review! I’m happy you enjoyed this book as much as you did. I’m also excited that the story brings NYC to life in the 1930s.
    Wonderful review!

    (I see you’re reading Gillespie and I, I hope you enjoy it! I did!)

    1. I loved Gillespie and I! I was so upset it didn’t make the Orange Prize shortlist 😦 I really need to write my review – it’s another one of those I want to do justice to.

  2. Hi Sam! How are you going – sorry it’s been so long since I’ve checked out your blog. This book sounds amazing! And The Great Gatsby is one of my all-time favourites, so I’m definitely keen to read this one now. 🙂

    1. Hello! *waves*
      I understand – life can be really busy! I would highly recommend this book. Are you planning to see The Great Gatsby movie when it comes out? I hope it’s not too Baz-ified and out there (like Australia movie, oh my goodness!)

      1. I’m really looking forward to seeing it! I am a bit worried about it though, not only do I love the book but also the Robert Redford film adaptation. It’s hard to see how a new adaptation could be better than that one! But here’s hoping Baz does a good job!

      2. I haven’t seen the Robert Redford movie – I am really bad at sitting down to watch movies, often I will get up and read instead! I hope that Baz doesn’t make it as ‘out there’ as Australia was.

  3. I adored the Towles book. Really atmospheric, and yes, reminded me instantly of Fitzgerald. Loved the opening section too.

    If the Baz film of GG is anything like Romeo + Juliet I’ll love it!

    1. I loved his version of Romeo + Juliet (not just because of Leo). I loved Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom, but not Australia so much. (Probably because the editing made it look like two views were next to each other, when in reality the landmarks are hundreds of kilometres apart!)

  4. I really like that cover photo – not surprised that it’s been used for more than one book. This is a book I’ve been intrigued by. I do have a counter-opinion about the subway photos though. I have taken the metro and I don’t feel that I have my real “face” on there or that others do. I usually try to keep my face as blank and expressionless as possible when I’m taking public transportation.

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