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Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility

How would George Washington behave in New York society in the 1930s? The ladies and gentlemen of post-Depression-Era New York have had to reinvent the old rules of order in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. The women are experimenting with new freedoms where they don’t want to figure out how to marry the man with the power and money—they want to be him.

In this story, partly a Sex in the City romp, Katey Kontent, daughter of Russian immigrants, and her friend Eve Ross, who is trying to escape her Midwestern small city blues, make a brand new start of it on New Year’s Eve 1937 in the greatest city in the world. They meet banker Tinker Grey that night. They think he is the “King of the heap/top of the list,” and he has a well-studied copy of Young George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation to guide him. The three form a friendship/love triangle, but Tinker’s secrets will test their loyalty. Katey and Eve are not afraid to meet their futures, but Tinker is stuck in the past.

This is Katey’s coming-of-age story as she has one foot in the door of Condé Nast for her professional life and the other in the Knickerbocker Club.  She remakes herself from Katya to Katey in the city where alterations like that can happen. Author Amor Towles has a New York turn of phrase and captures the New York state of mind of the 1930s.

In 1966, walking through an exhibit of Walker Evans’ photographs of subway riders in New York City in the 1930s and seeing two pictures of Tinker Grey reminds Katey of her annus mirabilis: the one year in your life where you are presented with choices that will alter your path in life and your character—and that the choices did not come without a price. Her husband comments on the order of the two photographs, wondering, “Rags to riches or riches to rags?”