The book captures a certain feel for the period but it seems more like a Hollywood version and is weakened by an unbelievable narrator. “Kate” starts out mentioning that class differences don’t go unnoticed in the East, but she never finds herself in any difficulty negotiating the steep climb. The author puts too much clunky historical detail in her mouth, and her character comes off as too cool a customer by half. Also, some scenes would seem right at home in a Jacqueline Susann tale.
First of all, I love the title. Also, there really are 110 “rules of civility,” written down by George Washington as a guide to gentlemanly conduct. They are certainly appropriate for modern times as well as in the 1920s when Towles’s book is set and in Washington’s time. And the old fashioned language is charming, i.e., rule #4: “In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.”
I did not fall in love with the book, though. It’s the story of various characters’ attempts to advance in society and fortune, and the paths their lives took when they seized or refused the opportunities that came their way. Ethical and considerate behavior might lead to good fortune...or it might not. It might indicate high standards of character...but not necessarily. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of good/bad and right/wrong, but I just didn’t care about any of the characters. Therefore it mattered not to me whether any of them got their just desserts.
But then, I loved A Gentleman in Moscow so much, so Rules of Civility likely suffered a great deal in comparison.
I listened to this book over a period of weeks. It was interesting to read two books by this author. I found the voice in each book to be so different and to be a match with the period and place of each book in a unique way. Rules of Civility is in NYC during the 20s and on. The title refers to a list of rules written and followed by George Washington. They are in some ways the secret keys to joining privileged society. The story is of two young women, working in a typing pool, one from the midwest and a beauty, the other a local who aspires to being a journalist. The story starts with the journalist, late in her life and with her husband, seeing photos in a private exhibition. They are portraits in black and white and one is a man she remembers well - there are two photos of him, one in an expensive fur greatcoat and the other on a subway in rough working man's clothes. Her husband sees the progression from the working man to the wealthy, but she knows that the progression went the other way, and that the man's face on the subway shows a happiness he never felt in his riches. It is a complex story because there are shifting perspectives on who people are.
I read this after falling in love with Towles' prose style in "A Gentleman in Moscow." Reminiscent of Nabokov but just light enough to feel a bit like dessert as opposed to main course. Was interesting to see the crumbs in this book that led to writing a book about post-Trotsky Russia. I am absolutely enamored with Towles' style and will continue to read his work. High recommend.
In depression era New York City (1938) some live in abject poverty and others still revel in Jazz Age luxuries. The characters here are bright, quick, optimistic, stylish. By the end the reader may question which character's life is lived by "The Rules of Civility."
48 HOLDS ON 18 COPIES 11/17
I was prompted to read this after thoroughly enjoying this author's latest book called A Gentleman in Moscow. I didn't fall in love with Rules of Civility but it has it's own brand of charm and has a wonderful sense of time and place. Well worth reading.
A bit of a slow start, but soon enough I was drawn in to 1938 New York, with all the attitudes and mannerisms of the time effortlessly woven into the story by the author. It reads like life - one thing happens, then the next and the next, and sooner than you expect your life has been shaped by all your past experiences and acquaintances and you're on the road in a direction you would have never expected. And old acquaintances are not forgotten, but having made their contribution, become faded memories.
Above all, this book is about a time and a place: New York, 1938. Everything proceeds from that. Towles conjures up a wonderful cast of characters that could only exist in their particular form within the aegis of that iconic city and during that brief hiatus between the Depression and WW2. Best and most delightful of all is the style, both the style of the prose and the style of life embraced by those characters.
Midway through the book I found that it was losing momentum as Kate's life began to go sideways and I was regretting the loss of the sparkle that had pervaded the first few chapters; but then I understood that this dimming of the lights was entirely deliberate. Reality was creeping in, the party hats were beginning to look a bit tawdry and the book took on more substance.
This is not a simple story even though some reviewers have found it lacking in plot; it's a story of self-discovery, a re-assessment of values, expectations, goals.
One final word: a rebuke to those reviewers who question Towles' audacity in writing in the first person what is so thoroughly and intimately a woman's story. I think he has accomplished it brilliantly. Kate is utterly believable; her personality will stay with me for a long time.
A delightful read.
Enjoyed immensely. Evocative of the Depression era, New York centred, lovely writing
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