Rules of Civility
Fall '12 Reading Group List
— Matthew Lage, Iowa Book L.L.C., Iowa City, IA
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August 2011 Indie Next List
— Matthew Lage, Iowa Book L.L.C., Iowa City, IA
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From the #1 New York Times-bestselling author of The Lincoln Highway and A Gentleman in Moscow, a “sharply stylish” (Boston Globe) book about a young woman in post-Depression era New York who suddenly finds herself thrust into high society—now with over one million readers worldwide
On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker, happens to sit down at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a year-long journey into the upper echelons of New York society—where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve.
With its sparkling depiction of New York’s social strata, its intricate imagery and themes, and its immensely appealing characters, Rules of Civility won the hearts of readers and critics alike.
Praise For Rules of Civility: A Novel…
“An irresistible and astonishingly assured debut about working class-women and world-weary WASPs in 1930s New York…in the crisp, noirish prose of the era, Towles portrays complex relationships in a city that is at once melting pot and elitist enclave – and a thoroughly modern heroine who fearlessly claims her place in it.” —O, the Oprah Magazine
“With this snappy period piece, Towles resurrects the cinematic black-and-white Manhattan of the golden age…[his] characters are youthful Americans in tricky times, trying to create authentic lives.” —The New York Times Book Review
“This very good first novel about striving and surviving in Depression-era Manhattan deserves attention…The great strength of Rules of Civility is in the sharp, sure-handed evocation of Manhattan in the late ‘30s.” —Wall Street Journal
“Put on some Billie Holiday, pour a dry martini and immerse yourself in the eventful life of Katey Kontent…[Towles] clearly knows the privileged world he’s writing about, as well as the vivid, sometimes reckless characters who inhabit it.” —People
“[A] wonderful debut novel…Towles [plays] with some of the great themes of love and class, luck and fated encounters that animated Wharton’s novels.” —The Chicago Tribune
“Glittering…filled with snappy dialogue, sharp observations and an array of terrifically drawn characters…Towles writes with grace and verve about the mores and manners of a society on the cusp of radical change.” —NPR.org
“Glamorous Gotham in one to relish…a book that enchants on first reading and only improves on the second.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
Penguin Books, 9780143121169, 384pp.
Publication Date: June 26, 2012
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
At the outset, Rules of Civility appears to be about the interrelationship between Katey, Tinker, and Eve; but then events quickly lead Eve and Tinker off stage. Are Dicky Vanderwhile, Wallace Wolcott, Bitsy, Peaches, Hank and Anne Grandyn as essential to Katey’s “story” as Tinker and Eve? If so, what role do you think each plays in fashioning the Katey of the future?
Katey observes at one point that Agatha Christie “doles out her little surprises at the carefully calibrated pace of a nanny dispensing sweets to the children in her care.” Something similar could be said of how Katey doles out information about herself. What sort of things is Katey slow to reveal; and what drives her reticence?
After seeing Tinker at Chinoisserie, Katey indicts George Washington’s Rules of Civility as “A do-it-yourself charm school. A sort of How to Win Friends and Influence People 150 years ahead of its time.” But Dicky sees some nobility in Tinker’s aspiration to Washington’s rules. Where does your judgment fall on Tinker? Is Katey wholly innocent of Tinker’s crime? Where does simulation end and character begin? Which of Washington’s rules do you aspire to?
A central theme in the book is that a chance encounter or cursory decision in one’s twenties can shape one’s course for decades to come. Do you think this is true to life? Were there casual encounters or decisions that you made, which in retrospect were watershed events?
When I told my seven-year-old son that I had written a book that was going to be published, he said: That’s great! But who is going to do the pictures…? While the Walker Evans portraits in the book may not meet my son’s standards of illustration, they are somewhat central to the narrative. But, in addition, there are the family photographs that line Wallace Wolcott’s wall (including the school picture in which Tinker appears twice); there are the photographs of celebrities that Mason Tate reviews with Katey at Condé Nast; there are the pictures that end up on Katey and Valentine’s wall. Why is the medium of photography a fitting motif for the book? How do the various photographs serve its themes?
One of the pleasures of writing fiction is discovering upon completion of a project that some thread of imagery has run through the work without your being aware – forming, in essence, an unintentional motif. While I was very conscious of Photography as a motif in the book, and the imagery of Fairy Tales, here are two motifs that I only recognized after the fact: Navigation (expressed through references to the Odyssey; to the shipwrecks of the Titanic, Endurance and Robinson Crusoe; and through Thoreau’s reckoning and pole star metaphors); and The Blessed and the Damned (expressed through scattered references to churches, Paradise, the Inferno, Doomsday, Redemption Day, the Pieta and the language of the Gospels.) What role do these motifs play in the thematic composition of the book? And if you see me in an airport, can you please explain them to me.
Upon completion of this book, one of my guilty pleasures has been imagining how Eve was doing in Hollywood. When Eve says, “I like it just fine on this side of the windshield” what does she mean? And why is the life Tinker offers her so contrary to the new life she intends to pursue? If you register at my web site, on the first of the year I will send you a short story on Eve’s progress.
When Tinker sets out on his new life, why does he intend to start his days saying Katey’s name? What does he mean when he describes Katey as someone of “such poise and purpose”? Is the book improved by the four sections from Tinker’s point of view, or hindered by them?
T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is referenced in the book’s Preface and its Epilogue. Why is that poem somehow central to Katey’s 1969 reflections on her 1938 experiences?
Please don’t answer this last question until the wine glasses are empty and the waiters are waiting impatiently to clear your table: In the Epilogue, Katey observes that “Right choices are the means by which life crystallizes loss.” What is a right choice that you have made and what did you leave behind as a result?