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Book Review of 'Rules of Civility' by Amor Towles

Updated on November 13, 2012
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May has a MA in Creative Writing from Macquarie University, NSW. She spends her days reading, running and fighting chronic writer's block.

A little snippet...

"Twenty pounds underweight, he had almost lost the blush on his cheeks and his face was visibly dirty. But his eyes were bright and alert and trained straight ahead with the slightest hint of a smile on his lips, as if it was he who was studying the photographer. As if it was he who was studying us. Staring across three decades, across a canyon of encounters, looking like a visitation. And looking every bit himself."

- Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

Read it for yourself!

Who Is Amor Towles?

According to his website,, Mr Towles is a graduate of Yale, and has a Masters in English from Stanford.

Rules of Civility was rated one of the 10 best books of 2011 by The Wall Street Journal.

A Fantastic Read

At the moment I'm reading novels set in New York, in preparation for my trip to Manhattan in December.

That's how I came across Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, who has just become my new favourite author. Or I could also say my favourite new author, since this is his first novel.

Rules of Civility is set in 1930s New York, the era from which Manhattan derives much of its distinct character - think of the architecture from that period, such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.

The book is masterfully crafted, beginning with a preface set at MOMA in 1966. Katy Kontent (her name possibly being the one gripe I had with the book), is attending an exhibit of candid photographs taken in the 1930s of people riding the New York subway, when she sees two photographs of Tinker Grey. In one, he is well dressed, in the second his clothes are worn and shabby

The book then delves into the main story. It is New Year's Eve, 1937, the night that Katy and her friend Eve meet Tinker Grey.

Katy and Eve, both secretaries, are struggling to make ends meet in Manhattan. Tinker Grey on the other hand comes from the wealthy educated upper class - or so it seems. They instantly click and there's a little competition between Katy and Eve for the handsome Tinker's attention. Then a terrible accident changes things between the three of them forever.

The story works particularly well because of the preface, where Katy is confronted by a face she hasn't seen in years. The book then becomes a story of a woman looking back on a significant period in her life. Throughout the main section of the book which spans New Year's Eve 1937 until New Year's Eve 1940, Tinker and Eve come in and out of the story, but the preface ensures that we are always reading on to find out what happens to Tinker Grey.

We follow Katy as she progresses in her career and begins to mingle with the elite, in circles where people don't seem to mind having names like Bucky and Bitsy, and Dicky and Tinker.

Katy discovers that Tinker is not as he seems. The book's title Rules of Civility is taken from George Washington's 'Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation' which Tinker uses as a kind of etiquette guide. This is included as an appendix in the book.

The real joy of reading Rules of Civility is in how it so convincingly portrays New York in the 1930s. I had to check that it had actually been recently written. Reading it will make you feel like going to a jazz club and sipping a martini.

The prose is sharp and snappy, yet beautifully descriptive. Whilst most of the book is written from the point of view of Katy in first person, there are a couple of short chapters written in the third person about Tinker Grey. I can't say I was a big fan of this, and not quite sure why it was necessary, but it seemed to work to give us a little more of an insight into this mysterious character.

I hope Mr Towles' next book is not too long in coming. Rules of Civility is definitely a great read.


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