“Rules of Civility” is a debut novel by Amor Towles. The story takes place in the late 1930s providing (in a long flashback) a picture of Manhattan society not often depicted. The story is a retrospective account of the U.S. slowly moving out of the Depression and toward World War II. 

The novel begins in 1966 at the Museum of Modern Art. A middle-aged Katey Kontent and her husband wander around a photography exhibit when by chance, she spots a familiar face in two photographs. Taken a year apart in 1938 and 1939 they are of a man Katey once loved. Introduction over, the story transports the reader to New Year’s Eve,1937.

“Rules of Civility” tells the story of three people: boarding house roommates Katey and beautiful Eve Ross, and a mysterious Tinker (Theodore) Grey, a rich young banker they meet on New Year’s Eve. Katey was raised by Russian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, while Eve has distanced herself from her wealthy family in Indiana. The social scene is one of social climbing, upwardly mobile young working women. Katey moved from a secretarial pool to a job as publisher’s assistant at Condé Nast. Not much is known about Tinker except that he is nice looking, always well dressed, charming and fun.

Both Katey and Eve are attracted to him. The flashback tells the story of a year in Katey’s life when decisions that were made affected the rest of her life and those of her friends.

The conflict between individual ambitions and acceptable social codes between classes is critical to the development of this story, as is the theme of chance encounters and their role in shaping lives. The cast of memorable and intriguing characters keeps the story fast paced.

“Rules of Civilty” takes the reader to parties on Long Island estates, jazz clubs, Conde Nast offices, suites at the Plaza, elegant and expensive restaurants and even flophouses.

It is interesting to note that the title of this novel is taken from George Washington’s book of moral and social codes based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595.