How much ambition is acceptable? When does our quest for self improvement cross into selfishness, and even worse, socially unacceptable behavior? These are questions at the heart of the American dream, and they are key to Amor Towles’ fine debut, Rules of Civility.
Rules is the story of Katey Kontent (pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable, as in the feeling that she rarely experiences). The story opens in 1966, where a stroll through a Walker Evans retrospective with her husband uncovers two pictures of an old acquaintance, one where he’s looking well-to-do, and another where he’s looking beaten down.
The pictures throw Katey into memories of 1938, when her younger self, a second-generation American, pull-yourself-up-by-your-heelstraps kind of gal, was trying to conquer New York with wit and intelligence in a time when money and social class were the usual gateways. She and her best friend Eve meet a young banker, Tinker Grey, at a New Year’s Eve party and begin to vie for his attentions.
So begins a story full of love gained and love lost, of cocktails and jazz, of youthful energy sometimes skidding into betrayal. It’s the story of the costs of social climbing: some rise, some are lost in the mountains. The tale is set perfectly in 1930s Manhattan, a time when distant wars in Europe threaten, new styles of art and literature are on the rise, and a new generation of young people are starting to shake off the doldrums of the Depression.
The title comes from the book of rules that George Washington used to govern his behavior and curry favor in a much earlier rise to power. They’re consulted by Tinker as he pursue his own future and also serve as a kind of reminder to readers that the codes of moral conduct are key to this tale.
Along with the pleasure that comes from sophisticated, complex characters, you’ll appreciate Towles for his great facility at turning a clever phrase. That gift is shown off with great aplomb by the audiobook, which Rebecca Lowman reads with verve and a witty pacing that shows off every sparkling gem.
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