Amor Towles is a connoisseur of period settings. Before the
Soviet-era A Gentleman in Moscow
(2016), he composed Rules of
Civility, a vivid portrait of 1930s New York society.
Katey, the 25-year-old protagonist, child of Russian immigrant parents, hobnobs with the upper crust, propelled less by calculation than by smarts and good fortune. Katey frequents trendy clubs, Long Island estates, posh restaurants, and luxe apartments. On the job she moves up from a secretarial pool to the staff of a new Condé Nast magazine. Prominent among the chic characters she befriends is Tinker Grey, who will become her lost love. The title Rules of Civility comes from Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior, which Tinker, after George Washington, makes his code of conduct. The 110 rules are printed in the back of Towles’s novel.
Katey is surprisingly sophisticated for someone raised without the cultural perks of privilege, but her snappy repartee is so entertaining that Towles can be forgiven that improbability. Towles said that a theme is the possibility of self-reinvention, and Katey does prove herself up to any new height she ascends. For many readers, however, the main attraction is likely to be not the characters but the sparkling picture of old-money Manhattan 80 years ago.
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