Book Nook: An Ode to New York City in “Rules of Civility” – The Quadrangle

by Alexa Schmidt, Managing Editor

“Rules of Civility” was read on a handy Kindle – easy to
read in between class times.
ALEXA SCHMIDT / THE QUADRANGLE

“Rules of Civility” takes place in New York City in 1938. There are three main protagonists: Eve, Katey and Tinker. Katey and Eve are scheming roommates who search for the cheapest way to have fun, and Tinker is the mysterious man who falls into their lives. Author Amor Towles reconstructs our beloved city from scratch and makes plenty of references to the people and places that have since become iconic. 

Eve is a country girl from Indiana, who throws herself into the fray and the laps of men who just might buy her a drink. Constantly on the hunt for some adrenaline-racing adventures, Eve takes Katey along with her. A little more reserved and quiet, with the ability to step back and reflect on her experiences rather than live in the moment, Katey is the one who brings Eve back down to earth. Told from Katey’s point of view, the readers get a glimpse of what it must have been like to sit in Russian bars at a time when political turmoil and differences were forgotten over a glass of vodka. Yes, a whole glass. Tinker is a wealthy banker who steps into the path of these women at just the right time. Amused at Eve’s flirtation, but taken with Katey’s nature, it is easy to tell who Tinker prefers. But as he enters a relationship with Eve due to unforeseen circumstances, there still seems to be a lingering “what if?” in the scenes between Tinker and Katey. 

However this is not a love story, but an ode to a time and era where everything seemed magical. As Katey moves through life, she encounters socialites, artists, writers, drunks, doormen and editors, all in a whirlwind of a series of events over the course of a year, with New York City’s glittering lights as the backdrop. People move in and out of her life as she navigates friendships, relationships and being alone. 

Katey learns what it means to be born into money, as opposed to earning it yourself. She learns how to build a career, from working as a secretary to finding success with “Gotham” magazine. And she learns what it means to preserve oneself in a world that constantly wants you to change. 

Throughout “Rules of Civility,” Katey has missed chances, encounters marked by fate and decisions that altered the course of her life. She reflects on what it means to live an international life, and continuously asks herself what is in her control, and what simply is not. Do destinies exist, and if they do, how must one escape? And more importantly, how must we make the most of our lives? These are the questions that pervade each character in “Rules of Civility,” and either spur them into action or have the opposite effect. 

There are many parallels between the 1930s and today in New York City. Yes, the city itself has evolved but the intention has remained the same. People from all walks of life have traveled to New York City to chase their dreams, some youthful, and some older, but many who are just trying to lead authentic lives and find their purpose when the world around them seems to be falling apart. 

“Rules of Civility” makes the readers yearn for a nostalgic time we have never experienced. It leaves us with a sense of longing for people who would have shown us a good party, for the hole-in-wall jazz bars with performers who will play all night and for an era gone. If this book should teach you anything, it is to trust the timing in your life. Just remember, whatever happens, it will be exciting, volatile, disappointing, unpredictable and the best time you’ve ever had. So soak it up, and treat yourself to a cocktail while you’re at it.