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Rules of civility
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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. The saxophonist, a mournful giant with skin as black as motor oil, had apparently lost his way in the labyrinth of one of his long, lonely solos. While the bass player, a coffee-and-cream mulatto with a small deferential mustache, was being careful not to hurry him. Boom, boom, boom, he went, at half the pace of a heartbeat. The spare clientele were almost as downbeat as the band. No one was in their finery. There were a few couples here and there, but no romance. Anyone in love or money was around the corner at Café Society dancing to swing. In another twenty years all the world would be sitting in basement clubs like this one, listening to antisocial soloists explore their inner malaise; but on the last night of 1937, if you were watching a quartet it was because you couldn't afford to see the whole ensemble, or because you had no good reason to ring in the new year. We found it all very comforting. We didn't really understand what we were listening to, but we could tell that it had its advantages. It wasn't going to raise our hopes or spoil them. It had a semblance of rhythm and a surfeit of sincerity; it was just enough of an excuse to get us out of our room and we treated it accordingly, both of us wearing comfortable flats and a simple black dress. Though under her little number, I noted that Eve was wearing the best of her stolen lingerie. Eve Ross . . . Eve was one of those surprising beauties from the American Midwest. In New York it becomes so easy to assume that the city's most alluring women have flown in from Paris or Milan. But they're just a minority. A much larger covey hails from the stalwart states that begin with the letter I--like Iowa and Indiana and Illinois. Bred with just the right amount of fresh air, roughhousing, and ignorance, these primitive blondes set out from the cornfields looking like starlight with limbs. Every morning in early spring one of them skips off her porch with a sandwich wrapped in cellophane ready to flag down the first Greyhound headed to Manhattan--this city where all things beautiful are welcomed and measured and, if not immediately adopted, then at least tried on for size. One of the great advantages that the midwestern girls had was that you couldn't tell them apart. 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. But to the native New Yorker, the midwestern girls all looked and sounded the same. Sure, the girls from the various classes were raised in different houses and went to different schools, but they shared enough midwestern humility that the gradations of their wealth and privilege were obscure to us. Or maybe their differences (readily apparent in Des Moines) were just dwarfed by the scale of our socioeconomic strata--that thousand-layered glacial formation that spans from an ashcan on the Bowery to a penthouse in paradise. Either way, to us they all looked like hayseeds: unblemished, wide-eyed, and God-fearing, if not exactly free of sin. Hailing from somewhere at the upper end of Indiana's economic scale, Eve was indisputably a natural blonde. Her shoulder-length hair, which was sandy in summer, turned golden in the fall as if in sympathy with the wheat fields back home. She had fine features and blue eyes and pinpoint dimples so perfectly defined that it seemed like there must be a small steel cable fastened to the center of each inner cheek which grew taut when she smiled. True, she was only five foot six, but she knew how to dance in two-inch heels--and she knew how to kick them off as soon as she sat in your lap. That New Year's, we started the evening with a plan of stretching three dollars as far as it would go. We weren't going to bother ourselves with boys. More than a few had had their chance with us in 1937, and we had no intention of squandering the last hours of the year on latecomers. We were going to perch in this low-rent bar where the music was taken seriously enough that two good-looking girls wouldn't be bothered and where the gin was cheap enough that we could each have one martini an hour. We intended to smoke a little more than polite society allowed. And once midnight had passed without ceremony, we were going to a Ukrainian diner on Second Avenue where the late-night special was coffee, eggs, and toast for fifteen cents. But a little after nine-thirty, we drank eleven o'clock's gin. And at ten, we drank the eggs and toast. We had four nickels between us and we hadn't had a bite to eat. It was time to start improvising. Eve was busy making eyes at the bass player. It was a hobby of hers. She liked to bat her lashes at the musicians while they performed and ask them for cigarettes in between sets. This bass player was certainly attractive in an unusual way, as most Creoles are, but he was so enraptured by his own music that he was making eyes at the tin ceiling. It was going to take an act of God for Eve to get his attention. I tried to get her to make eyes at the bartender, but she wasn't in a mood to reason. She just lit a cigarette and threw the match over her left shoulder for good luck. Pretty soon, I thought to myself, we were going to have to find ourselves a Good Samaritan or we'd be staring at the tin ceiling too. And that's when he came into the club. Eve saw him first. She was looking back from the stage to make some remark and she spied him over my shoulder. She gave me a kick in the shin and nodded in his direction. I shifted my chair. He was terrific looking. An upright five foot ten, dressed in black tie with a coat draped over his arm, he had brown hair and royal blue eyes and a small star-shaped blush at the center of each cheek. You could just picture his forebear at the helm of a schooner--his gaze trained brightly on the horizon and his hair a little curly from the salt sea air. --Dibs, said Eve. Excerpted from Rules of Civility by Amor Towles All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Fiction/Biography Profile
Katherine Kontent (Female), Secretary, Moved to Manhattan for its culture and the chance to add glamour to her life; searching for a brighter future; in love with the same man as her roommate; enters a new social cirlce
Evelyn Ross (Female), Katherine's roommate; in love with the same man as Katherine
New York society
Social classes
Social climbing
Upper classes
Wealthy lifestyles
Young women
Life changes
New York - Mid-Atlantic States (U.S.)
Time Period
1938 -- 20th century
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Trade Reviews
New York Times Review
This novel's characters try to reinvent themselves in 1930s New York. THE saying "May you live in interesting times" has undeniable resonance for the investment executive-turned-novelist Amor Towles. In 1989, he was set to go to China for two years to teach. When the Tiananmen Square massacre put an abrupt end to that plan, he headed for Manhattan. On his first night in the city, he met two strangers. One would become his brother-in-law; through the other, he found the job in which he has worked for 20 years. What would have happened if he'd hit town a day later? This is the kind of improbable-but-true serendipity that plots the lives of people in their 20s - in whatever epoch - before they know the weight that decisions made in a moment might have. In Towles's first novel, "Rules of Civility," his clever heroine, who grew up in Brooklyn as "Katya," restyles herself in 1930s Manhattan as the more clubbable "Katey," aspiring to all-American inclusion. As World War II gears up, raising the economy from bust to boom, Katey's wit and charm lift her from a secretarial pool at a law firm to a high-profile assistant's perch at a flashy new Condé Nast magazine. One night at the novel's outset touches off the chain reaction that will produce both Katey's career and her husband, and define her entire adult life. She's swept into the satin-and-cashmere embrace of the smart set - blithe young people with names like Dicky and Bitsy and Bucky and Wallace - with their Oyster Bay mansions, their Adirondack camps, their cocktails at the St. Regis and all the fog of Fishers Island. The city does not necessarily allow Katey to forget herself. When she pops into a newsstand at Astor Place to buy The Times, a boy from the old neighborhood recognizes her as he tries to cadge a smoke. "Hey. I know you, right?" he asks. "I don't think so," she replies, noticing that he has "the same presumptuous smile and the wandering eye" that he'd had when they were 14. "That's the problem with being born in New York," the paper seller remarks, after the scrounger saunters off. "You've got no New York to run away to." Except, as Towles so persuasively shows, New Yorkers do have another New York to run away to: the New York of their past. For Katey, who in 1966 is moved to recall hers, this bygone metropolis is the New York of 1938, the most consequential year of her youth. Her memories reanimate that era, awakening in the reader the tingling recognition that her history and the city's remain familiar, latent, even recurrent, with would-be Kateys lurking in office cubicles to this day. With this snappy period piece, Towles resurrects the cinematic black-and-white Manhattan of the golden age of screwball comedy, gal-pal camaraderie and romantic mischief (think of "Stage Door," "Made for Each Other," "My Man Godfrey" and even Fay Wray in "King Kong"). With Katey, we travel by cab and watch Broadway "slipping by the windows like a string of lights being pulled off a Christmas tree," or see limousines idling in front of the 21 Club, smoke spiraling from their tailpipes "like genies from a bottle." These pages prompt recollections of movie scenes stamped so deeply on the psyche that they feel remembered: elevated trains, Carole Lombard and Jimmy Stewart, smoky jazz clubs and men in fedoras. To call such images clichéd would be to call youth clichéd, to call Manhattan itself a cliché. As in the 1937 Lombard film "Nothing Sacred" - which opens with a mighty montage of towering buildings superimposed with the words "This is New York, Skyscraper Champion of the World . . . where the Slickers and Know-It-Alls peddle gold bricks to each other . . . and where Truth, crushed to earth, rises again more phony than a glass eye" - an ironic attitude can do little to diminish the power of the city's mythology. And if, as you watch or read such archetypal stories, the thought does arise that nothing (and nobody) is quite as it seems, what remains, as Gershwin wrote, "'s marvelous." Katey rooms in a women's boardinghouse with a strong-willed girl from the Midwest named Eve, who's determined to live in New York without her daddy's financial support. On New Year's Eve in 1937, Katey and Eve head for a Village jazz club with three dollars between them, intending to scrape by on one martini an hour and to peel off to a Ukrainian diner as 1938 dawns, for a 15-cent breakfast of coffee, eggs and toast. Enter a handsome man, "an upright 5-foot-10, dressed in black tie," with brown hair, "royal blue eyes" and a cashmere coat so elegant Eve can't take her eyes off it. She instinctively introduces herself as "Evelyn" to sound a little grander. The man's name is Tinker ("How the WASPs loved to nickname their children after the workaday trades," Katey notes, admiring him all the same). He stands them to drinks, gallantly venturing into the cold night to find Champagne and returning with a bottle hoisted aloft by its neck, "grinning like a truant holding a fish by the tail." Not long after midnight, Tinker disappears, leaving behind a solid gold engraved lighter, like a male Cinderella with a Zippo instead of a slipper. Will one of the roommates add his initials to her monogram? Tracking him down shouldn't be hard; he's let slip that he lives in the Beresford, a luxury building on Central Park West. But once they find him, will he turn out to be a prince? If he is, why does he have a heavily underlined copy of George Washington's notes on proper social behavior (the "Rules of Civility" of the title)? Wouldn't such niceties come naturally to a prince? Towles's central characters are youthful Americans in tricky times, trying to create authentic lives, even if quasi-pseudonymously. "In New York City," he writes, "these sorts of alterations come free of charge." The novel follows Katey through 1938 as her friends and circumstances shift, and as social masks rise, fall and rise again. In Manhattan, she recognizes, a long memory is not always convenient. And from the beginning, the reader knows that after this eventful year, Katey will not see Tinker for nearly three decades - until she happens upon his image at the Museum of Modern Art while strolling with her husband through an exhibition of Walker Evans photographs of subway riders, taken between 1938 and 1941. She spots Tinker in one of them, "ill shaven, in a threadbare coat." When she points out the photograph to her husband, identifying Tinker as an acquaintance, he furrows his brow and says, "Riches to rags." But Katey remarks, "Not exactly." Yes, she thinks, "Tinker looked poor in that picture. . . . But he looked young and vibrant too; and strangely alive." Evans had snapped Tinker the year he quit trying to scale Manhattan's invisible mountain and took work on the docks. Standing on Pier 80, smoking, leaning against a pihng and admiring "the whole staggered assembly of town houses and warehouses and skyscrapers stretching from Washington Heights to the Battery," Tinker had thought that "from this vantage point Manhattan was simply so improbable, so wonderful, so obviously full of promise - that you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving." As Towles shows, that can be arranged. In a way, that can hardly be avoided. On a fateful night in 1937, the heroine falls into a flirtation that will change the course of her life. Liesl Schillinger is a regular contributor to the Book Review.
Library Journal Review
On New Year's Eve 1937, at a jazz bar in New York's Greenwich Village, Katey and Eve are charmed by the handsome and successful Tinker Grey. The three become fast friends and spend early 1938 exploring the town together, until a car accident permanently injures Eve. Feeling guilty, Tinker, the driver, takes care of Eve and unsuccessfully tries to love her. Despite the presence and initial impact of Tinker and Eve, though, this first novel is about Katey's 1938. Eve moves on, and Tinker fades, but Katey, the narrator, stays to challenge the New York bourgeois unwaveringly with her acerbic wit, capturing the attention of several doting men. She quits her job as a typist and pursues a career as editor of a respected, if risque, society magazine. And Katey does it without a handout (she thinks). VERDICT Historical love story. Snappy dialog and sophisticated characters. A romantic look at the difficulties of being a New Yorker. But not, as the publisher suggests, reminiscent of Fitzgerald, though similar themes (class, betrayal, despair) arise. This novel would, however, make a nice (contemporary) companion to novels like The Great Gatsby and is thusly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 1/17/11.]-Stephen Morrow, Ohio Univ., Columbus (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Booklist Review
This rhapsodic tribute to a bygone era conjures up mesmerizing images of 1930s New York. Two worlds collide on New Year's Eve 1937, and three lives will never be the same. For Katey Kontent and Eve Ross, two working gals out on the town, a chance encounter with patrician banker Tinker Grey sets into motion a series of events causing far-reaching consequences. As Towles explores the seemingly random ways in which both choice and chance can impact the future, Katey, Eve, and Tinker each face a dark night of the soul, during which fates are twisted, reshaped, and realigned. Discerning readers will draw parallels between Towles and the ominously ironic Edith Wharton while relishing the fact that the snappy dialogue and descriptive prose are wrapped in a compelling narrative.--Flanagan, Margare. Copyright 2010 Booklist
Kirkus Review
Manhattan in the late 1930s is the setting for this saga of a bright, attractive and ambitious young woman whose relationships with her insecure roommate and the privileged Adonis they meet in a jazz club are never the same after an auto accident.Towles' buzzed-about first novel is an affectionate return to the postJazz Age years, and the literary style that grew out of it (though seasoned with expletives). Brooklyn girl Katey Kontent and her boardinghouse mate, Midwestern beauty Eve Ross, are expert flirts who become an instant, inseparable threesome with mysterious young banker Tinker Grey. With him, they hit all the hot nightspots and consume much alcohol. After a milk truck mauls his roadster with the women in it, permanently scarring Eve, the guilt-ridden Tinker devotes himself to her, though he and she both know he has stronger feelings for Katey. Strong-willed Katey works her way up the career ladder, from secretarial job on Wall Street to publisher's assistant at Cond Nast, forging friendships with society types and not allowing social niceties to stand in her way. Eve and Tinker grow apart, and then Kate, belatedly seeing Tinker for what he is, sadly gives up on him. Named after George Washington's book of moral and social codes,this novel documents with breezy intelligence and impeccable reserve the machinations of wealth and power at an historical moment that in some ways seems not so different from the current one. Tinker, echoing Gatsby, is permanently adrift. The novel is a bit light on plot, relying perhaps too much on description. But the characters are beautifully drawn, the dialogue is sharp and Towles avoids the period nostalgia and sentimentality to which a lesser writer might succumb.An elegant, pithy performance by a first-time novelist who couldn't seem more familiar with his characters or territory.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

From the #1 New York Times -bestselling author of The Lincoln Highway and A Gentleman in Moscow , a "sharply stylish" ( Boston Globe ) book about a young woman in post-Depression era New York who suddenly finds herself thrust into high society--now with over one million readers worldwide

On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker, happens to sit down at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a year-long journey into the upper echelons of New York society--where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve.

With its sparkling depiction of New York's social strata, its intricate imagery and themes, and its immensely appealing characters, Rules of Civility won the hearts of readers and critics alike.

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