(Audio)Book Talk: *Rules of Civility*, by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility: A NovelAmor Towles
Audiobook read by Rebecca Lowman
Penguin Books (2012); Paperback (ISBN 9780143121169 / 0143121162 )Fiction, 352 pages
Source: purchased audiobook (ISBN 9780142429273, Audible ASIN B005EJFUYI)
Reason for reading: Personal, 2012 Audiobook Challenge. #JIAM (June is Audiobook Month)

Opening lines (Chapter 1): “It was the last night of 1937.

“With no better plans or prospects, my roommate Eve had dragged me back to The Hotspot, a wishfully named nightclub in Greenwich Village that was four feet underground.

“From a look around the club, you couldn’t tell that it was New Year’s Eve. There were no hats or streamers; no paper trumpets. At the back of the club, looming over a small empty dance floor, a jazz quartet was playing loved-me-and-left-me standards without a vocalist.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year- old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.
The story opens on New Year’s Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.

Comments: For about a week, during my daily drive to and from work across 2012 Los Angeles, I was simultaneously transported to 1938 New York City via the audiobook of Amor Towles’ 2011 novel, Rules of Civility, as read by Rebecca Lowman. I’m still pretty new to audiobooks, and for the most part, I’ve enjoyed nonfiction audios more than fiction, but this novel was a joy to listen to. That’s partly because I’m a sucker for books set in not-so-old New York, but Towles’ protagonist Katey Kontent is an original, and they way Lowman gave voice to her story stuck in my head and actually made me eager for my commute. It takes something special to do that.

Rules of Civility opens in 1966, when a woman unexpectedly spots a familiar face in the photos on display at an art opening and finds herself remembering 1938, the remarkable year when she knew its owner. At 25, Katey (originally Katya) Kontent (accent on the second syllable) had already made her way out of the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and into the secretarial pool of a Lower Manhattan law firm, and was getting to know her city better in the company of her roommate, Midwestern transplant Evelyn (originally Evie) Ross. When the girls crossed paths with Tinker (originally Theodore) Grey a few hours before the start of 1938 and they all share a New Year’s toast to “getting out of ruts,” they had no idea that the end of the year would find them all in very different places.

Personal reinvention has long been part of the mythos of New York City, and it’s a primary theme of the novel; the title comes from a list of “instructions for living” that George Washington compiled for himself, and which serves as a personal guidebook for Tinker. Eve and Tinker’s purposeful reinventions have effects and repercussions for Katey, shaping and redirecting her own less calculated self-making. 1938 is a year in which Katey experiences much of New York life for the first time, and she gets the opportunity to choose which aspects of it she wants to carry forward. She works hard and well, she’s wry and observant, she’s smart, independent, and open to taking calculated risks…and she never goes anywhere without a book. I don’t think she was created to be instantly lovable, but I found her thoroughly engaging and would have been happy to follow her story through decades, rather than just one year (although we do get an epilogue).

But having said that, I rather hope there won’t be a sequel; as much as I adored Katey, I felt that Rules of Civility told the story it meant to tell in full, and told it well. Like its protagonist, Amor Towles’ debut novel is assured, smart, and well-observed, and openly wears its mid-20th-century influences. Audiobooks can amplify weaknesses in writing, but aside from an over-reliance on similes, I didn’t find many here. Rebecca Lowman managed to give distinct voices to nearly every character, and her interpretation of Katey–and her city–sounded perfect to my ears. Rules of Civility is distinctly and proudly a New York story, with a distinctly, proudly New York cast of characters, and I was thoroughly immersed in its world.

Rating: Book and audio: 4 of 5
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