Rules of Civility is a kaleidoscopic portrait of 1930s New York. Bookoccino’s Pascale Kahn talks with Amor Towles about his glittering debut.
Our heroine Katey Kontent navigates a world as effervescent as it is uncertain. The novel’s pages are populated with speakeasies, high-society parties and Manhattan penthouse apartments, but Towles peppers all the glamour with just enough nostalgia to remind us of its transience.
Here is an opportunity for escapism, welcomed more than ever in the present moment. Curl up with this book and be drawn instantly into the rarefied lives of New York City’s upper classes, just like Kontent is herself drawn on a fateful New Years’ Eve in 1937, by a chance encounter with handsome banker Tinker Grey. The intersection of their lives will alter the course of the year in unimaginable ways.
Through Kontent, we are witness to the follies and excitements of a world far from our own. But our heroine is more an observer of this world than an active participant in it. At times her shrewd narration evokes that of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, and while Tinker is no Jay Gatsby, Rules of Civility possesses a similar kind of elegance that makes it a joy to read. Balancing amusement and depth perfectly Towles shows us why it is that we read in the first place: to see our humanity reflected on the page.
It is what makes Rules of Civility, as Towles states, “neither about a specific time, or suited to a specific time.” What matters, he insists, is the kaleidoscope of human life. Despite no shortage of the decadent and the glib, the novel’s raw examination of mankind emerges most powerfully. In Kontent and her friends, we see our flawed and hopeful selves, our regrets and finest moments. Mr Towles tells Bookoccino that in Rules of Civility he hoped to “create a work of art that, while being satisfyingly cohesive, contains such a richness of images, ideas, and personalities that it can prompt varied responses from reader to reader.”
The diverse personalities of this novel are indeed what make its pages come to life. Towles’ portrayals of love and loss are as witty as they are profound, and Kontent never misses the opportunity to punctuate all the action with a scintillating one-liner. Towles likens his characters to a “pile of brightly colored shards of glass. But rather than assemble these shards into a mosaic with a fixed image,” he continues, “I want to drop them into the bottom of a kaleidoscope where, thanks to a glint of sunlight and the interplay of mirrors, they render an intricate beauty which the reader can reconfigure by the slightest turn of the wrist.”
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Amor Towles is the author of ‘Rules of Civility’ and ‘Gentleman in Moscow’ as well as several works of short fiction. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children. Find out more about the author.