Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Rules of Civility: Amor Towles

I found Amor Towles' Rules of Civility to be an excellent book. It was one of those that took me at least a quarter of the book to settle into and enjoy, and then, as I got close to finishing, I didn't want it to end.

The book starts with a Preface set in New York City in 1966. Katey, who narrates the story, tells of an art exhibition she attended with her husband Val.

On the night of October 4th, 1966, Val and I, both in late middle age, attended the opening of Many Are Called at the Museum of Modern Art—the first exhibit of the portraits taken by Walker Evans in the 1930s on the New York subway with a hidden camera.

At that exhibit, Katey sees two photos of Tinker Grey, a man she knew well when she was in her twenties. One was taken in 1938 and he is well-dressed in expensive clothing; the other photo was from 1939 and his clothes are worn and threadbare. 

The story then jumps back to New Year's Eve in New York City in 1937, when Katey and her roommate Eve met Tinker at a jazz bar. Very quickly the three become friends, even though Katey and Eve are living in a boarding house and have low paying jobs and Tinker is a part of New York society. There is a big turning point when the three of them are in a serious automobile accident and only Eve has significant injuries.

From that point, the story mostly focuses on what happens to Katey in the next year. She is ambitious and resourceful; she works toward having a more rewarding job while still mingling in New York society. There are some wonderful minor characters: Wallace Wolcott, Tinker Grey's wealthy friend, who teaches Katey how to shoot and ends up going to Spain to fight in the Civil War; Anne Grandyn, an older woman (also wealthy of course) who encourages Katey to do bigger things with her life.

The book is divided into four sections, one for each season of the year. At the end of each section, there are a few pages told from Tinker Grey's point of view. There are also many changes in his life in 1938. At the end  of the book there is an Epilogue that ties together with the Preface. 

My thoughts:

I think a lot of what I liked in this book is due to Amor Towles' gift of storytelling. I also enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow by the same author. It was set in Moscow starting in 1922 and continuing through the next three decades, and had a more unrealistic, fantastical feel, but I loved reading that one too.

Katey is a reader. I always love a book where reading plays a part. She reads and rereads Dickens. Her reading keeps her grounded. At one point she starts reading Agatha Christie's mysteries and has interesting comments on them. 

Photographs also play a role in the story. There are the subway photos at the beginning, photos along the walls at various homes, school photos.

Appearances can be very deceiving in this book. There are many surprises in store as the book progresses. 


Publisher:  Sceptre, 2012 (Orig. pub. 2011)
Length:     335 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Setting:     New York City
Genre:      Historical Fiction
Source:     Purchased in 2020.


Cath said...

Now, this sounds really fascinating. Oddly enough, I have A Gentleman in Moscow on my Kindle and plan to read it this year. If I like it then maybe I'll move on to this one. Nice review, Tracy.

Margot Kinberg said...

This does sound really interesting, Tracy. What appeals to me, among other things, is the look the book seems to give at different time periods. That can be fascinating in and of itself. And the 'look back in time' plot point can work really well. Glad you enjoyed this.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And I am looking forward to THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY next. Oddly on the NYTBR podcast, both critics admitted they lost interest in A Gentleman and never finished it. My book group would probably rate it as one of their very favorite books. I read RULES but didn't like it as much as Gentleman.

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FictionFan said...

I loved this one too, but on reading your synopsis I've realised I've actually forgotten most of the story now. Time for a re-read! However, I'm just about to start his new one, so this one will have to wait a little longer. He really is a great storyteller!

Rick Robinson said...

I’ve not read any Towles, and it seems I should. This does sound interesting, and very literary. But I am so overwhelmed with books right now!

TracyK said...

Rick, Amor Towles is a very good writer, but I know what you mean about having too many books to contend with right now. I still haven't read much from the books I got at the book sale last September (except for reading from some of the anthologies).

TracyK said...

Cath, I think you will like A Gentleman in Moscow. Both books are about very interesting characters.

Lark said...

I read this one several years ago and enjoyed it, though I couldn't tell you why now. But I do really like Towles' writing, and A Gentleman in Moscow is one of my favorite books. :)

TracyK said...

Margot, I like Towles' writing and he creates interesting characters. But I did especially like this look at 1938 in the US, right before the war. Except for Wallace going to Spain, political issues are not that prominent. It was a very interesting book.

TracyK said...

Patti, that is interesting about the two critics losing interest in A Gentleman in Moscow. There might have been points where I was less interested in the storyline but overall I found it interesting. And not predictable, which is nice.

Will you be reading The Lincoln Highway soon? I will be interested to see what you think of it.

TracyK said...

Fiction Fan, I look forward to your thoughts on The Lincoln Highway. At first I wasn't sure I would be interested in it but since I have enjoyed both of Towles' other books, I will definitely give it a try.

TracyK said...

Lark, There are many books that I have read that I can't remember much about. It took me a while to warm up to this book, but once I did I just loved it. There was a novella about Eve, who wasn't my favorite character at all but I think it would be interesting. But I can't find it anywhere now.

CLM said...

I really enjoyed this book (despite the present tense) and am glad you liked it. I have a theory that people who like The Great Gatsby also like this, whether or not the parallels occur to them.

However, I guess I did not retain a lot of the detail because when I read A Gentleman in Moscow I didn't even realize there was a character from the State Department (IIRC) who appeared in both books.

I admire that his new book is completely different. I will eventually read it but I have a lot of other things to read first.

Happy New Year!

Neeru said...

This has been long on my tbr. Will come back after reading it. A very happy 2022, Tracy.

Sam Sattler said...

I am embarrassingly unfamiliar with this author, somehow not even having read his A Gentleman in Moscow yet. I do have a copy of The Lincoln Highway set aside for early next year. Sounds like I should add this one to my TBR, too.

TracyK said...

Constance, I loved both books but I never retain that kind of detail from reading a book. Who was the character that was in both books?

Because I liked the writing in this book so much, I am sure I will also read his new book, eventually.

I just recently bought a copy of Countdown, part of the Sixties Trilogy by Deborah, based on your review of one of the books in the series. I plan to read it early in 2022.

Happy New Year to you too.

Rick Robinson said...

Just dropped by to wish you both a happy and healthy 2022.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Rick, I am ready for 2022 to start and hopeful for it to be better than 2021.

A happy and healthy new year to you and Barbara.

TracyK said...

Neeru, I found it enjoyable. I hope you do to, when you read it.

Happy New Year to you.

TracyK said...

Sam, I am eager to hear what you think of The Lincoln Highway when you read it. I am also interested in reading that book after having such a good time reading his previous books, but I have lots of others to read first, so it will probably a while.

Happy New Year's Eve and I hope 2022 is good for all of us.

col2910 said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it and the set-up sounds interesting, but I think I can easily pass on this one.

TracyK said...

You are right, Col, more my kind of story than yours.