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Rules of Civility: A Novel

Rules of Civility: A Novel - Amor Towles In the mid 1960’s, at a photography show, Katey Kontent tells her husband, Val, that she recognizes one of the subjects in two pictures. He is shown in two versions of himself, one as a rich man and another as a poor one. His upper crust photo is not the latest one, as her husband thought. Katey’s memory is jarred and the story proceeds backwards almost thirty years, to the 1930’s and the time she met Theodore “Tinker” Grey.

It is the late 1930’s and America has come out of the depression. Young people are finding work. The United States is preparing for a war that has not yet been written. Young men are volunteering to serve in foreign armies. Women have few opportunities to advance in the working world; secretarial skills are paramount. Seeking a husband, preferably well-heeled, is the goal of many. Social climbing has become an art form. This is a story about ambition. It is about how people behave, about their hopes and how they go about achieving them. It is about social justice and injustice, perception, true and false. It is as much about class distinction as it is about the blurring of those lines. There is a proper way to behave befitting those in polite society and those imposters, as well, that seek to join that rarefied atmosphere. Running through the book is a central theme about manners, manners based on a little primer, handwritten by George Washington, containing 110 rules of civility. They govern every conceivable kind of behavior, public and private, which a lady or gentleman or impersonator of such, would follow, to appear well-bred. It is as much about the arrogance of the rich as it is about the impertinence of the poor.

It is a story about real people and how they seek happiness. It is about friendship and love, rivalry and misunderstandings, hopes and dreams. It is about which of our goals are important, which are valued more than others and why. It is about pleasure seekers. It is about Katy, and those of her era, coming of age, coming into their own. The book is about wealth, the kind one is born to, the kind one dreams about. It is about civility and also about duplicity. There is so much deception that no one really knows anyone’s true background. It would seem the characters have all written a portion of their own biographies as they all impersonate different persona, sneaking in and out of the world of the rich and famous with aplomb and then back into the world of the working poor. The book makes the sleight of hand seem easy.

The author defines the characters so well, you can visualize them as they weep, laugh, suffer, mock those around them and pretend to be other than they really are. He uses every world with precision so that it has perfect pitch and meaning. The times and places are captured perfectly. The expressive use of vocabulary was a listening extravaganza. Because I listened to an audio, and there were so many characters, I sometimes lost the thread of the dialogue. Even when I rewound, I could not recapture what I missed, so I could not tell if it was missing from the storyline, as well. Sometimes, places and characters appeared, seemingly at random, then disappeared and reappeared again later on, without warning. Occasionally, I was left unable to remember what role they played in the narrative. In a hard copy, I could easily have looked back. In the end, however, all the characters were accounted for and all the missing pieces were tied together and explained so I lacked nothing for having listened to, rather than read, the written word.

In this story, the rules of civility and the rules of duplicity occupied the same space, living side by side, until those characters found themselves. Whether they were successful is subject to interpretation.