Plot Junkie: Rules of Civility, Amor Towles

In 1966, Katey Kontent, the middle-aged narrator of the novel, attends an exhibit opening at MoMA. The exhibit showcased candid photographs taken on the subway in the late 1930’s—Katey’s recognition of one of the subjects, Tinker Grey, begins her recollection of the events that filled 1938.

But before she begins, she meditates on the truth revealed by the exhibit, which is the truth that is revealed on the subway:

Anyone who has ridden the subway twice a day to earn their bread knows how it goes: When you board, you exhibit the same persona you use with your colleagues and acquaintances. You’ve carried it through the turnstile and past the sliding doors, so that your fellow passengers can tell who you are—cocky or cautious, amorous or indifferent, loaded or on the dole. but you find yourself a seat and the train gets under way; it comes to one station and then another; people get off and others get on. And under the influence of the cradlelike rocking of the train, your carefully crafted persona begins to slip away. The superego dissolves as your mind begins to wander aimlessly over your cares and your dreams; or better yet, it drifts into an ambient hypnosis, where even cares and dreams recede and the peaceful silence of the cosmos pervades. (3)

This initial articulation of the separation between persona and what I’ll tenuously call “self” sets up an opposition that the rest of the book investigates.

Minor first-chapter-or-so spoilers after the jump.


Katey jumps us back to New Year’s Eve in 1937; she and her best friend and roommate, Eve, head to a low-key jazz club and proceed to get absolutely smashed on the cheapest liquor in the house. Shortly before midnight, a man—so well-dressed as to appear out of place in the bar—is seated next to them. They strike up a conversation with Tinker, who is so old-money that “you could just picture his forebear at the helm of the Mayflower” and end up ringing in the New Year with him. Everything about Tinker proclaims his status: his coat, which cost at least five hundred; his flask, engraved; his manners, easy but perfect.

He keeps a memento from childhood in his bedroom, which Katey—much later—finds and is charmed by: The Rules of Civility, a guide for behavior written by a young George Washington, inscribed to Tinker from his mother.

I initially had envisioned this post as laying out all sorts of fascinating themes running through the novel, similarities to other works of literature, and basic fabulousness. However. I find myself resisting summary of this novel because it was such a good read. I don’t want to—in the giving of spoilers—actually spoil it for you. None of the above will do that. So I’ll just introduce the characters, as I have done, and give the most obvious meaning of the title. And the rest is silence.

Rules of Civility is absolutely lovely. I read it in one long, six-hour gulp, and just spent half an hour rereading the first few chapters. The narrator is one with whom you are happy to spend time, her world sparkles and glitters but has a distinct bite.

Highly, oh so highly, recommended.

The New York Times book review

NPR book review

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