Towles’s book Rules of Civility

28 Aug

Amor Towles’s first novel, Rules of Civility ( 2011, Penguin Books) is a good read about sociological and psychological matters.  The author vividly contrasts New York City’s upper crust in the late 1930’s with the much less fortunate classes of Manhatten society during the Depression. Although there are wide gaps between the classes, there is social mobility to the upper class if you follow the rules of civility.

The use of George Washington’s 110 rules of civility, written during his teens, was a brilliant touch. Some of Towles’s characters idealize such rules as behaviors and values to strive for, while others use them to pretend civility. The pretenders believe that if you act and look like you fit in, you will. And for some it works. But there are also characters who are repelled by the superficial veneer and a few even choose to move down the social ladder because they find that high society doesn’t suit them.

The novel’s main character is a plucky and talented young woman, Katey Kontent, who is a social climber but also, as her last name implies, has a solid core. She is a “new woman” who becomes increasingly independent and able to see herself and her friends clearly from different perspectives, all of which she is able to accept. She is in her middle twenties, a decade Towles presents as a time when the decisions made define the future. Her maturing understanding enables her to move toward better decisions and to appreciate the real importance of the rules of civility.

My only criticism of the book is that it is somewhat overwritten, as if the author is trying too hard. Although most of his details enrich, there can be so many it is distracting. Not only can there be too many details but also, too many word and too many big words, such as “each individual lumen testifying to some unhesitant intemperate collective aspiration” (p. 300).

Still Towles has an impressive command of language and historical detail. He is also funny. His work reminds me of two books that I have recently read: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Age of Innocence by Edith WhartonAll three books masterfully present a particular time and place and the interplay of class, character, and relationships.

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