Rules of Civility (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch


Rules of Civility
Amor Towles, 2011
352 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September 2011

Amor Towles has given us a smart, sophisticated coming-of-age story—told from the vantage point of a middle-aged woman looking back, to the late 1930s, at a much younger version of herself.

Katey, our narrator, is one of three young adults starting out in Manhattan, the other two Eve and Tinker. The three form a love triangle with Tinker at the apex. He's a young man possessed of all the accouterments of wealth—a prince: charming, poised, and good looking. He's of the class that stands apart, "exhibiting a poise secured by the alchemy of wealth and station."

For the children of wealth New York is a city where the "improbable would be made probable...the impossible possible." But for others like Katey and Eve, the city "glitter[s] like a diamond necklace that knows exactly whom it's within the reach of." And both young women want to be within reach of the necklace. That's the basic story.

Along the way, Towles drops hints that things are not quite what they seem: an apartment building fronted with a Latin inscription: "Place No Trust in Appearances," or a class photo in which a character manages to appear twice. The three main characters go by different names: Katya, Katey and Katherine; Eve and Evelyn; Tinker, Teddy, and Theodore—all suggesting characters auditioning their own identities.

Towles's writing is knowing and insightful and his dialog peppered with devilish quips. The story falters somewhat, though, when the author shifts perspective, letting Tinker take's only two or three times but still kind of clumsy.

Nonetheless, Rules of Civility is wonderful read—and a terrific book for stimulating lively book club discussions on those eponymous rules. Do the rules of civility correct our behavior or mask it?

See our Reading Guide for Rules of Civility.

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