Kate Z's Reviews > Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
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's review
Feb 16, 2012

it was amazing
Read from February 11 to 15, 2012

One of the reviews on the book jacket reads, "The best novels are the ones that completely transport you to another time and place. This beautifully written novel does just that."

I couldn't have said it better.

The book references one of my favorite poems The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Other Poems (complete text here: http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html) and Rules of Civility felt like a novel version of that poem.

My favorite line from the Eliot poem "In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse" is a central theme to this novel. I found myself thinking about the decisions I'd made that turned out to be watershed moments in my life.

I thoroughly enjoyed Katey Kontent (love that her name is KonTENT and not CONtent) and the slow way she revealed more and more of herself. My mom alluded to this when she was telling me about the novel - the way that at first Katey holds the reader at arm's length and gradually over the course of the novel draws you closer and closer. Katey alludes to it herself when she's talking about Agatha Christie novels and how they dole out little surprises along the way.

I also enjoyed the photography and the importance of photographic imagery in the novel from the Walker Evans portraits to the photographic images at Gotham, the Conde Nast publication, to the WASPy family photographs in the hallways at Wallace's to the pictures on Katey and Val's walls - photographs and the instants they capture are so important to this novel and its themes.

New York novels are often really metaphoric novels of America - where New York City functions as the quintessential "melting pot" of America's lore. I can't remember now who commented to Katey that it was a shame that she was from New York - because for New Yorkers there's no New York to run away to and blend in.

When you base your novel on George Washington it can hardly not be a novel which examines, at it's heart, America and its ideals. But Towles takes the rags to riches "American Dream" story and shakes it out (like those pockets he refers to in the prologue) and takes a closer look (pockets and jackets are recurring symbols throughout the book). Tinker, Eve and Anne are all re-imagined American dream stories. I love this line from after Eve is found drunk in an alley and assumed to be a prostitute, "But then who ends up like they thought they would? They call 'em dreams for a reason, right?"

In addition to the "rags to riches" story, Rules of Civility also examines in depth another classic American storyline: the truth to be found in individual pursuits. This is most obvious in the Walden, or Life in the Woods story and imagery (woods, hiking, etc) but the idea is introduced in the Walker Evans photographs that, according to Katey in the preface, reveal "those few minutes to let our guard down and, our gaze inexact, finding the one true solace that human isolation allows." Tinker says, referring to Walden, or Life in the Woods, "Four hundred pages of a man alone in a cabin philosophizing on human history, trying to strip life to its essentials ..... in the end - I thought it was the greatest adventure of them all."

I tend to enjoy books where a critical eye is cast upon human nature and the human heart but in the end it's that humanity and the simple livng of life that triumphs. Like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close this is a New York story where life, the everyday living of it, and the diversity of people is celebrated and enjoyed.

I loved that this is a book of smart, capable females who all make a go of it. I actually loved the Anne storyline; that the most powerful player, the one pulling all the strings, was actually a woman. I loved that moment at the track when Katey runs into Anne and they are looking at this rich horse owner and his young wife. Anne tells Katey, "if I were your age, wouldn't be trying to figure out how to get into Carrie's shoes - I'd be trying to figure out how to get into Jake's."

Eve is a different kind of strong female and she shares this insight: "I was brought up to raise children, pigs and corn and to thank the Good Lord for the privilege. But I've learned a thing or two since the accident. And I like it just fine on this side of the windshield."

Of course it's Katey, the moral center, who spells out the main theme of the novel "that truth is here and now" and this point and theme are reiterated throughout Towles' novel. This isn't a great write up but I think it's a great book. For me to give a book a 5 star rating I have to love it (that's a 4 for me) but, beyond that, I have to want to read it again and it has to be a book I would recommend to others, regardless of age or gender. For me it meets these criteria. My first 5 star read of 2012!
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Reading Progress

02/13/2012 page 78
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Linda (new)

Linda Gordon Loved your review, Kate! Also, that's a big WOW that you gave it 5 stars! Do I remember any 5 stars for 2011---don't "think" I recall any for new books.

Kate Z Also, I was just going to give it 4 stars but - as I think I said somewhere - maybe it's just where it hit in my reading life/personal life but it's a book that I think works on a lot of levels. Of course I can't help but like the book reading girl and all the literary references! So many of my favorites mentioned in here (not the Russian stuff though!) and I loved her witty remarks and reparte. I think maybe my 5 stars has as much to do with the fact that I'd like to BE her as anything.

Neil I'm enjoying this on audio right now. You know it's a good book when you're excited to get in the car and commute.

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