BOOKS

Rules of Civility

Author: Amor Towles

Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

TL;DR: If you’re looking for a summer read on a cross-country flight, I’d strongly recommend this one. I started page one during a long taxi out at SFO and happily read my way back to the beginning of our descent back into JFK. Perfect for a day on a plane or a day sur la plage.

Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility is a more enjoyable, realistic, and masterful imagining of the drama and the times in the gap between the height of the Roaring Twenties and the beginning of World War II. Invariably any book that finds its timing in this area has to stand up next to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It does this well and in fact shows it to be Gatsby’s better in several principal ways.

More after the break

First, Towles has a more beautiful facility with the English language. A few stunners should suffice:

We had missed little more than a decade of each other’s adult lives; but that was time enough. It was time enough for whole lives to have been led and misled.

It didn’t occur to people like this that they might be unwelcome in a new environment—and as a result, they rarely were.

Manhattan—this city where all things beautiful are welcomed and measured and, if not immediately adopted, then at least tried on for size.

And all those came from the first 5% of the book!

Second, Towles gives a slightly more complete picture of society than was Fitzgerald’s wont. Often in Fitzgerald, there are the wealthy and the poor and the few characters in-between serve as mere plot devices for advancing the “real” action: slatterns are for running over; barkeeps are for running after slatterns, and pool maintenance staff are for blackmailing the wealthy about their sordid interactions with slatterns.

Lastly, Towles gets Manhattan culture so well as noted in the quote above: “Manhattan—this city where all things beautiful are welcomed and measured and, if not immediately adopted, then at least tried on for size.” Thinking back, Fitzgerald places so many of his stories here along the East River, but he squanders the power of the world’s most worldly city as setting. The diamond is, of course, big as the Ritz and the East versus West Egg implications of geography and society are important, but Towles lets you live and love the character of Manhattan and Manhattanites and those corn-fed girls who wash up in on the East side from the states that start with “I.”

With these strengths on his side, Towles gives us the exploits and cunning of the nearly-respectably poor and their relationships with the élites. With the characters of Katey and Eve, we see how poor-ish office girls made their way in glamorously unaffordable Manhattan in a grand style all their own. Automats, crashed parties, and shared boarding rooms all added up into a Romantic pennilessness that intersects in a cool, gray flash when they come to meet the moneyed Tinker Grey.

Horn & Hardart Automat, NYC

We expect a familiar story, but we don’t get one. Instead we get a cunning and more nakedly ambitious view into wealth and privilege. This is a view that Fitzgerald could never give us because, at the end of the day, he still wanted to get invitations to the Long Island fêtes held by those he lightly daubed with scandal and daring. Towles’ narrator, Russian(-Jewish?) first-generation-American-born Katey gives us a more realistic and appropriately jaundiced read on the machinations of Manhattan.

Recalling Gatsby and Jennifer Eagan’s Manhaattan Beach, I found this to surpass both.

{
	"title": "Rules of Civility ",
		"author": "Amor Towles",
		"highlightCount": 51,
		"annotations": [
		{
			"location": "173-174",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "It was as if America launched the Depression just to teach Manhattan a lesson.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "197-198",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "We had missed little more than a decade of each other’s adult lives; but that was time enough. It was time enough for whole lives to have been led and misled.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "220-231",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "He looked poor and hungry and without prospects. But he looked young and vibrant too; and strangely alive.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "225-226",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Manhattan—this city where all things beautiful are welcomed and measured and, if not immediately adopted, then at least tried on for size.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "222-224",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "A much larger covey hails from the stalwart states that begin with the letter I—like Iowa and Indiana and Illinois. Bred with just the right amount of fresh air, roughhousing, and ignorance, these primitive blondes set out from the cornfields looking like starlight with limbs.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "249-250",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "—I’m willing to be under anything, she said, as long as it isn’t somebody’s thumb.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "289-290",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "It didn’t occur to people like this that they might be unwelcome in a new environment—and as a result, they rarely were.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "313-316",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "How the WASPs loved to nickname their children after the workaday trades: Tinker. Cooper. Smithy. Maybe it was to hearken back to their seventeenth-century New England bootstraps—the manual trades that had made them stalwart and humble and virtuous in the eyes of their Lord. Or maybe it was just a way of politely understating their predestination to having it all.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "497-498",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Like all the rest of the world’s warring tribes, these two made their way to New York City and settled side by side.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "588-588",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "be careful when choosing what you’re proud of—because the world has every intention of using it against you.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "714-715",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "whistled like a hard hat appreciating the hem of a skirt. Eve and I went down the steps.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "839-841",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "But you don’t have to own a railroad to shorten or lengthen your name. Teddy to Tinker. Eve to Evelyn. Katya to Kate. In New York City, these sorts of alterations come free of charge.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "1084-1085",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "An act of generosity rarely ends a man’s responsibilities toward another; it tends instead to begin them. Few understand this, but I have no doubt that you do.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "1091-1092",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "the city glittered like a diamond necklace that knows exactly whom it’s within the reach of.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "1108-1109",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Most New Yorkers spent their lives somewhere between the fruit cart and the fifth floor. To see the city from a few hundred feet above the riffraff was pretty celestial. We gave the moment its due.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "1152-1152",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Old times, as my father used to say: If you’re not careful, they’ll gut you like a fish.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "1238-1238",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "She was born to be charmed. Or intimidated. Either way, it showed a solid lack of judgment on both their parts.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "1243-1244",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "That charming boy with his fine enunciation and floppy bangs, they’ll let him talk his way out of it. And little miss wide eyes, she’ll pay the price for the both of them.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "1251-1251",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "The old woman had this evening’s lox wrapped in yesterday’s news.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "1290-1290",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "—That’s the problem with being born in New York, the old newsman observed a little sadly. You’ve got no New York to run away to.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "1772-1775",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "It’s a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon: a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact, not one in a million can do that. But there are tens of thousands of butterflies: men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings—one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage—and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "1778-1780",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "If we earn fifty cents an hour, we admire the rich and pity the poor, and we reserve the full force of our venom for those who make a penny more or a penny less. That’s why there isn’t a revolution every ten years.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "2282-2283",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "What better reason for a drink than looming penury?",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "2304-2304",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "For a young woman the pay at Pembroke was so bad and the professional prospects so poor, it went without saying that you took the",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "2304-2305",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "For a young woman the pay at Pembroke was so bad and the professional prospects so poor, it went without saying that you took the job because you could absolutely afford to do so.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "2321-2323",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "He’s the sort that New York City was made for. If you latched yourself onto the likes of Dicky Vanderwhile, pretty soon you’d know everyone in New York; or at least everyone white, wealthy and under the age of twenty-five.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "2400-2401",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "life. That’s how quickly New York City comes about—like a weather vane—or the head of a cobra. Time tells which.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "2474-2475",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "his hatred of all things purple (royalty, plums, fancy prose).",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "2518-2525",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Where for so many, New York was ultimately the sum of what they would never attain, for this crew New York was a city where the improbable would be made probable, the implausible plausible and the impossible possible. So if you wanted to keep your head on straight, you had to be willing to establish a little distance, now and then. As a waiter passed, I traded in my gin for a glass of champagne. All the French doors to the Hollingsworths’ great room were open and guests were flowing in and out, instinctively maintaining a constant equilibrium between the terrace and the house. I wandered inside trying to size up the invited as Mason Tate would have. On the edge of a couch, four blondes sat in a row comparing notes like a conspiracy of crows on a telephone wire. By a table crowned with two cloved hams, a broad-shouldered young man ignored his date. While before a pyramid of oranges, lemons and limes a girl in full flamenco was making two men spill their gin with laughter. To the unpracticed",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "2518-2519",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Where for so many, New York was ultimately the sum of what they would never attain, for this crew New York was a city where the improbable would be made probable, the implausible plausible and the impossible possible.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "2772-2773",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Either way, we knew that our feelings for each other weren’t urgent, or impassioned, or prone to deception. They were friendly and fond and sincere.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "2804-2806",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "—It’s funny about photography, isn’t it? The entire medium is founded on the instant. If you allow the shutter to be open for even a few seconds, the image goes black. We think of our lives as a sequence of actions, an accumulation of accomplishments, a fluid articulation of style and opinion. And yet, in that one sixteenth of a second, a photograph can wreak such havoc.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3006-3006",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "With no achievements behind them, they already looked as self-assured as the flyboys would at the end of the Second World War.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3066-3068",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "There it was again. That slight stinging sensation of the cheeks. It’s our body’s light-speed response to the world showing us up; and it’s one of life’s most unpleasant feelings—leaving one to wonder what evolutionary purpose it could possibly serve.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3090-3092",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Outside, the Labor Day wind was scattering leaves to the ground. You could just tell it was going to pour. The rest of the weekend would have to be cribbage and tea to the tune of a banging screen door. The casinos would be shuttered, the tennis nets lowered, and the dinghies, like the dreams of teenage girls, would be dragged ashore.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3110-3112",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Presumably, one factor is that each city has its own romantic season. Once a year, a city’s architectural, cultural, and horticultural variables come into alignment with the solar course in such a way that men and women passing each other on the thoroughfares feel an unusual sense of romantic promise. Like Christmastime in Vienna, or April in Paris.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3112-3114",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Come September, despite the waning hours, despite the leaves succumbing to the weight of gray autumnal rains, there is a certain relief to having the long days of summer behind us; and there’s a paradoxical sense of rejuvenation in the air.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3233-3234",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "—Watch out for boys who think they owe you something. They’ll drive you the craziest.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3293-3294",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "But when your daughter runs away, it is the fond memories that have been laid to rest; and your daughter’s future, alive and well, recedes from you like a wave drawing out to sea.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3495-3495",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "What a transcendent diversion the crossword can be.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3496-3499",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "OLIO—no matter how vestigial these words are in the body of common English, watching them fit so neatly into the puzzle’s machinery, one feels as the archaeologist must feel when assembling a skeleton—the end of the thighbone fitting so precisely into the socket of the hip bone that it simply has to confirm the existence of an orderly universe, if not a divine intention.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3580-3581",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Once she had paid in full, Anne looked up and saw me standing at the front of the restaurant. Ever plucky, she waved. She wasn’t hiding behind an Oriental screen or a potted palm.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3583-3584",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "The only consolation in being humiliated is having the presence of mind to leave immediately.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3870-3871",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "—Most people have more needs than wants. That’s why they live the lives they do. But the world is run by those whose wants outstrip their needs.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "3924-3925",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "We give people the liberty of fashioning themselves in the moment—a span of time that is so much more manageable, stageable, controllable than is a lifetime.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "4146-4147",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "—Five languages? I said before he left. —Yeah. Five languages. And he can lie to himself in every one of them.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "4165-4165",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "that sweetest of New York luxuries: a Sunday night at home with nothing to do.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "4240-4240",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "Like any Manhattanite of means, she had identified a need and paid to have it serviced.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "4452-4453",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "—If we only fell in love with people who were perfect for us, he said, then there wouldn’t be so much fuss about love in the first place.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "4531-4532",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "He always looked his best, I thought to myself, when circumstances called for him to be a boy and a man at the same time.",
			"annotation": ""
		},
		{
			"location": "4674-4675",
			"dateAdded": "June 17, 2019",
			"highlight": "from this vantage point Manhattan was simply so improbable, so wonderful, so obviously full of promise—that you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.",
			"annotation": ""
		}
	]
}