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A sophisticated and entertaining debut novel about an irresistible young woman with an uncommon sense of purpose.

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.  Read more...


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A sophisticated and entertaining debut novel about an irresistible young woman with an uncommon sense of purpose.

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.

Elegant and captivating, Rules of Civility turns a Jamesian eye on how spur of the moment decisions define life for decades to come. A love letter to a great American city at the end of the Depression, readers will quickly fall under its spell of crisp writing, sparkling atmosphere and breathtaking revelations, as Towles evokes the ghosts of Fitzgerald, Capote, and McCarthy.

  • ISBN-13: 9780670022694
  • ISBN-10: 0670022691
  • Publish Date: July 2011

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Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2011-03-14
  • Reviewer: Staff

In his smashing debut, Towles details the intriguing life of Katherine Kontent and how her world is upended by the fateful events of 1938. Kate and her roommate, Evelyn Ross, have moved to Manhattan for its culture and the chance to class up their lives with glamour—be it with jazz musicians, trust fund lotharios, or any man with a hint of charm who will pay for dinner and drinks. Both Kate and Evelyn are enamored of sophisticated Tinker Grey, who they meet in a jazz club; he appears to be another handsome, moneyed gent, but as the women vie for his affection, a tragic event may seal a burgeoning romance's fate. New York's wealthy class is thick with snobbery, unexpected largesse, pettiness, jealousies, and an unmistakable sense of who belongs and who does not, but it's the undercurrent of unease—as with Towles's depiction of how the upper class can use its money and influence to manipulate others' lives in profoundly unsavory ways—that gives his vision depth and complexity. His first effort is remarkable for its strong narrative, original characters and a voice influenced by Fitzgerald and Capote, but clearly true to itself. (July)

BookPage Reviews

Chance encounters in Depression-era NYC

Literary wisdom has it that it is often easiest to write what you know, but with his debut novel, investment banker Amor Towles couldn’t have strayed farther from his own life. Raised in suburban Boston in the 1970s, he somehow manages to conjure an impeccably detailed, poetically rendered portrayal of the complicated rise of a professional woman in 1930s New York.

On New Year’s Eve, 1937, Katey Kontent and Eve Ross leave their boardinghouse for a night in a Greenwich Village jazz club with nothing but $3 and boundless dreams between them. Brooklyn-bred Katey hails from poor, Russian immigrant stock, trying to rise through the ranks as a secretary in a Wall Street law firm. Stubborn Eve, who comes from Wisconsin money, got her publishing job thanks to family connections, but otherwise is determined to make it on her own. Katey and Eve are best friends, sharing everything from dresses to their boardinghouse bedroom, and they think that nothing could come between them—until the charming, debonair Tinker Grey walks into the bar, and Eve calls dibs.

The novel is governed by the chance encounters and seemingly small moments that end up making a difference in people’s lives—an interesting theme, but one that ultimately undermines the absolutely tremendous tension that Towles builds between Katey, Eve and Tinker. The triangle is shattered early on by an unexpected incident, which is perhaps true to life, but losing such nuanced momentum feels like a shame. Still, Towles’ prose is enormously promising, and Rules of Civility is a worthwhile read just for the pleasure of watching the New York landscape come alive under his pen, from the decadent 21 Club and the grand apartments of the Beresford to the stodgy Chelsea boardinghouses and lively Russian bars on the Lower East Side. 

BAM Customer Reviews