Rules of Civility by Amor Towles is a charmingly witty novel of two young women in 1938 New York as they take different paths through the stratified social maze of the city.
Katey is the well-educated but not wealthy narrator, and her best friend is Eve, a young woman of indeterminate social standing from the Midwest. The fact that neutral Midwest accents keeps you from knowing a person’s social class is something that truly annoys Katey.
“You can always tell a rich New York girl from a poor one. And you can tell a rich Boston girl from a poor one. After all, that’s what accents and manners are there for.”
The lives of Eve and Katey are changed by a chance meeting in a jazz club with “Tinker” Grey a young man from the super wealthy “old money” circles, that most people can only dream of .
Throughout Rules of Civility, Katey finds herself occupying the two worlds of New York. By day she is a secretary with low wages that can barely pay for her minuscule apartment. At night and on the weekends she is hobnobbing with people who own mansions, Rolls Royces and summer estates in The Hamptons.
In 1938, life choices were relatively few for a poor young woman, no matter how well educated or intelligent. Eve embarks on the well-traveled path of finding a rich man to help smooth the bumps of life. Katey tries the much more difficult course of actually becoming a successful career professional at a time when such a thing was almost unheard of.
Evey page of Rules of Civility is a pleasure to read, with wonderful witticisms throughout. At one point, Katey visits The Plaza Hotel and has this encounter in the elevator.
“Before the doors closed a pair of honeymooners joined us. Bright, rosy and young, they looked like they were ready to spend every last penny they had on room service. When they skipped down the hallway on twelve, I offered the elevator boy a friendly smirk.
–Newlyweds, I said
Not exactly, ma’am
Not exactly newly. Not exactly wed.”
Amor Towles is an incredibly talented writer. He spent the first 20 years of his career in Finance in New York, and Rules of Civility was his first novel. He followed this with the brilliant Gentleman of Moscow.
It is wonderful to see that all successful new writers don’t have to be young. In fact, it is Amor Towels’ life experience that make him such a brilliant commentator on the world. Whatever he publishes next, I will definitely be the first in line to buy it.