Published in 2011, Rules of Civility is American author Amor Towles’ acclaimed debut novel. Set at the end of the 1930s during the Great Depression, the narrative follows spunky roommates Katey Kontent and Evelyn Ross as they make their way up the social ladder in New York society. Though much of the narrative takes place at the end of the 1930s, the preface and epilogue are set in 1966 and provide a bookended point of historical reference via a Walker Evans photography exhibit. Themes of identity, class struggle, love, betrayal, choice, friendship, and wants versus needs are explored in the noirish prose of Towles’ story.
This New York Times Bestseller has been praised by many publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, with both publications awarding the novel Best Fiction 2011. When Katey and Eve—best friends and roommates—visit a jazz bar on New Year’s Eve in 1937, they have no idea how this seemingly mundane act will forever change the course of their lives. The girls are trying to beat their own path in New York, and on this night, have a measly budget between them for drinks, food, and entertainment. Before long, they’ve spent their money on drinks.
That’s when Tinker Grey, a wealthy, handsome, and shy bachelor enters the bar. Eve calls dibs, though it’s clear that Tinker and Katey also have a connection. The girls note his demeanor and clothing, instantly sizing him up as a potential windfall for them. Tinker is mysterious from the outset, with his gold lighter that displays his initials and crude date markings, and his mention of his brother Hank Grey, whom he believes Katey would get along with. The three soon form a fast friendship which, as the old owner of one of their favorite spots says later, can’t possibly last long. When a horrible accident leaves Eve disfigured, the lives of Eve, Katey, and Tinker change forever.
Because Tinker was driving, his guilt is so deep that he remains by Eve’s side, effectively ending any chance at a romantic relationship with Katey. Eve must hang on now to ensure a place for herself in society. When Tinker calls Katey one night to watch Eve while he “goes to work,” the three are thrust back into a game of chance and choice. As Eve and Tinker grow closer, Katey pushes away any and all feelings for him. She also begins her own upward climb through the social ranks, thanks to changes in employment and her group of friends. Katey is introduced to both old and new money, and she makes friends and alliances with both types as she ascends.
One early morning, Katey is visited by the police and must bail a drunken Eve out of jail. Tinker proposed to Eve, but she turned him down. The two never loved each other, and Tinker only proposed because Eve was pregnant (she had an abortion while in Paris).
Eve later takes a train to Los Angeles and never returns to New York. With Eve gone, Katey and Tinker rekindle their friendship—and love relationship—but with dire consequences. Katey takes a leap in falling for Tinker, but is rewarded with deceit and embarrassment when she finds out just how far Tinker has gone in the same game of upward mobility. With no one around she can trust, Katey briefly unravels until she finds friendship and advice in the strangest places (her younger, immature lover, and Tinker’s older brother Hank). When she realizes that she’s judged Tinker impartially, she tries to right the wrong. Can she and Tinker successfully navigate the rules of civility they choose to be bound to, or will they decide in the end to dance to another’s—or their own—drum?