Rules of Civility Book Review

Amor Towles‘ Rules of Civility, set in the late 1930’s to early 1940’s in NYC, is a descriptive portrait of life at the end of the depression. The novel depicts how people were influenced by financial crisis, how some continued to live lavishly, and how others’ lives were ruined because of what they lost during the depression. But the book isn’t just about finances, it also centers around the relationships between men and women from different classes as they struggle to find good jobs, love, and adventure in life.

I picked this book up for two reasons:

  1. I’m a sucker for American Literature set in the early 20th century, especially when it’s set in a big city.
  2. A friend suggested it as a fun read for the summer.

The Good

  • Towles does a great job describing the era. You really feel as though you are walking through the streets with the characters.
  • The relationships are complicated. There are layers of drama, loyalty, and jealousy in each one. The characters aren’t incredibly flat either.
  • The conflict isn’t easily remedied and doesn’t follow the typical happy ending of many love stories. I like this. It’s more realistic.
  • Towles portrays NYC as an urban jungle full of intermingling classes and the rising status of single, working women in a man’s world.

The Bad

  • The title, Rules of Civility, stems from George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, which Towles includes as an Appendix in the back of the book. I felt like it was overdone. Washington’s book was referenced time and time again in the story, which is fine, but really unnecessary. The title stood on its own and didn’t need the reference and inclusion of the book as an appendix for it to make sense. It could have been mentioned once or twice and tied the whole title and theme of class climbing together with ease.
  • I mostly liked the main character/narrator, Katey, but she was a little too know-it-all for me. If you know me, you know this means she had to be a know-it-all. She was from an incredibly poor family, yet managed to stay in school without support from her family. She also seems to know every detail about everything, which Towles suggests happened because she is an avid reader. It just seems slightly implausible. During the depression she managed as a 16-year-old to stay in school and not help her parents by getting any kind of job.
  • I feel like Towles creates Katey as smart and knowledgeable in order to set the scene of the book. I understand how it’s easier if she can describe things because she knows about them. However, it doesn’t really seem realistic and gets slightly annoying that she knows about the Barcelona exposition at the 1929 World’s Fair, uses French vocabulary, or is versed in “the new generation of painters trying to take Hemingway’s ethos of the bullring and apply it to canvas; or if not to canvas, then at least to innocent bystanders” (100).

Overall, the book was what I expected. I was able to overlook the annoyances I had and really enjoy the plot. Towles really does a great job painting the landscape of the end of the depression in NYC. From Irishmen who drink a lot to rich women who buy younger men’s affections, he reaches a broad scope of people. If you’re interested in an easy era read, it will work for you. Apparently there is also a novella about Eve’s character, who is the most compelling and interesting character in the story, being the best friend and go-getter. It’s called Eve in Hollywood and follows what happens to the character after her escapades in NYC are over.