Rules of Civility

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     Amor Towles is a master of words!  This is his first novel, but the second that this book group has read.  We read "A Gentleman in Moscow" a couple years ago and enjoyed that one as much as this one.  He comes up with the most amazing and totally relatable similes, such as, "Evans looked as sad and nondescript as a retiree from General Motors middle management." or "...he spent whole quarters of an hour standing awkwardly in the corner like the ugliest girl at the dance." (Preface, ePg. 2)

     The book is set in New York City in 1938 and is told through the eyes of a female narrator, Katey Kontent (accent on the second syllable - as in having sufficiently enough).  I was continually amazed that Mr. Towles could so effectively tell the story through an opposite-gendered main character narrator, especially remembering that this was his first novel.  

     In the Preface we meet Katey at an art exhibit with her date, Val.  (Given today's penchant for LGBTQ characters, I was initially wary but eventually became confident that Val was male.)  At the exhibit, she sees a photo of someone she used to know, but it is clear she doesn't want Val to know that she had a past with the photo's subject.  The novel then jumps back to tell the story of how Katey knew Tinker, the man in the photo.  The novel stays in the past until the very end - so long that the reader may even forget about Val and the art exhibit.  This is my only frustration with the novel, having the foreknowledge that Katey winds up with Val taints every possibility of hope in the past story.  The math is unclear, but a discerning reader of the Preface will determine that Katey and Val are now married and it is approximately 1969 - so the past is thirty years gone.

     The novel is broken into four sections, each pertaining to a season.  On the section break page, there is a photo with credits listed on the title page.  Another style point is that dialogue does not includes "quotes" but instead each change of speaker is set off with a -.  (Oddly, this is the second book in a row I've read with that style.)  At the end of each season, we read a few pages, in italics, which is told through Tinker's eyes.   

     I read some on Kindle and some in the paperback and then listened to the end on audio.  I was not very impressed by the audio, maybe because I'd already had the voices in my head for at least 90% of the book, and my ideas didn't match the audio.  However, I was glad to know how to pronounce the author's name: A (long a) - more  Tolls

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 represents lots of examples of the category):

Sex:  1

Religion:  2

Gruesome:  1

Suspense:   2

Morality:  2

Traditional: 1

Sex - later references indicate that there may have been a hookup (Ch. 18, ePg. 230) but it is very much a "Bachelor" style where the girl walks towards the door and the scene cuts to commercial.  Without details and only through subtleties like the mention of "hanky panky", it is implied that Katey was sleeping with a guy. (Ch. 22, Pg. 274-75)

Religion - The Epigraph is a quote from the Gospel of Matthew.  A man on the subway reads scripture. (Ch. 11, Pg. 140) Reference to a Catholic having an abortion. (Ch. 17, ePg. 215)  A long story is questioned as being "Leviticus long? Or Deuteronomy long?" (Ch. 19, ePg. 239) Chapter 24 is titled Thy Kingdom Come.

Gruesome - a sideline about a man jumping off a building. (Ch. 21, Pg. 270)

Suspense - The Winter section ends with, "And that's when the milk truck hit us." (Ch. 4, ePg. 53)  Katey finds an earring like one of the pair Eve found at Tinker's. (Ch. 16, Pg. 202)  For me, it was suspenseful because I didn't initially understand what it meant. The police knocked on Katey's door regarding Eve. (Ch. 17) Was there something else between Tinker and his godmother? (Ch. 19, ePg. 237)

Morality - There is lots of drinking in this book, but that may be more a sign of the 1930s than a lack of morality.  "Eve was wearing the best of her stolen lingerie." (Ch. 1, ePg. 14)  "she had apparently traded up to her best support bra - because the tops of her breasts could be seen from fifty feet in a fog." (Ch. 4, ePg. 47) - I'm conservative when it comes to dress.  A large part of Ch. 14 is about shooting for sport.

Traditional - two women kiss (end Ch. 23)

     I was glad to have the eCopy of this book, because there were a few times that I had to go back and search for something that I had glossed over earlier and that later came into play.  For example, in Ch. 1 there is a reference to Tinker having a brother (ePg. 20) but since he didn't show up to New Year's Eve, I felt he was inconsequential.  Later, Katey meets him and recognizes that it is Tinker's brother and I said to myself Tinker has a brother?  In Ch. 3 Tinker runs into Katey in a diner, but much later (ref. Ch. 18, Pg. 229) he reveals he followed her.  When he revealed that, I didn't even remember the initial diner scene.  I should've remembered it, because soon after Eve expressed jealousy that Katey had spent time with Tinker (Ch. 4, ePg. 45) - which led me to wonder what Eve was angling for.  There were also quite a few references to Charles DIckens' character Pip - so much that it felt like he was a character in this book and not an allusion.  I had to do a search to make sure I hadn't missed a character.  In Ch. 19 Katey remembers "how subtle a partner Tinker had been in the Adirondacks" (ePg. 242) - did I miss a hook up?!

     One weird thing that bothered me was when Eve is in Katey's kitchen, lights a cigarette, and "threw the match over her shoulder".  (Ch. 17, ePg. 215) I recognize that the floors of that era were not the vinyl flooring or carpet that we might have in more recent kitchens, but weren't a lot of floors in that time period wood?  Or what if it landed near the cabinet or a drape?  It seems kind of careless.  

     One fun aspect of the book is all the references to classic literature, like the allusion to  Edith Wharton. (Ch. 1, ePg. 23)

Discussion Questions

The St. Petersburg times states that "Pretty much none of the people in Rules of Civility are what they seem, and just how they misread each other - and we misread them - makes for a fascinating dance." (Cover pages)  Which character was most misjudged by other characters?  Which character did you most misjudge?

Katey did not want to share her memories of 1938 with her husband, Val, even though she thought it would bring them closer together, because she was afraid it would "dilute" her memories.  (Preface, ePg. 7)  Are there memories that you don't share?  What is your motivation for not sharing?

There are sections of the book for each season.  What do the seasons have to do with character development?  What key events happen in each section that align to the stereotypes of the season?

At the New Year's Eve celebration, someone read out a list of "indignities" of the previous year. (Ch. 1, ePg. 23)  What indignities of last year would you call out?

Charlotte was such a good typist that she was assigned all the heavy typing. Katey observes, "be careful when choosing what you're proud of - because the world has every intention of using it against you." (Ch. 3, ePg. 37)  Has your skill ever been used against you?

Tinker, Eve and Katey played a game of questions, including: (Ch. 4, ePg. 50)

What questions would you add to their game?

Katey reflects on her father's advice about "taking pleasure in the mundane" and being "prepared to fight for one's simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements".   Katey recognizes that her "cup of coffee has been the works of Charles Dickens". (Ch. 10, ePg. 128)  What is your simple pleasure that you would or should fight for?

Katherine got a promotion then spilled her purse, tore her skirt and spilled her drink. (ref. Ch. 11, Pg. 132)  Was it a bad omen?  Were you surprised that Katey quit her job at Quiggin & Hale. (ref. Ch. 11, ePg. 142)  What do you think motivated her?  Have you ever quit a job for similar reasons?  Katey didn't see those incidences as a bad omen, but later she thought the crossword clues were a good omen, shortly before her life was turned upside down.  (ref. Ch. 19, Pg. 233)  Did Katey, overall, seem like a perceptive person?

Do you agree with Alley's rules for co-workers? (ref. Ch. 13, Pg. 166)

After talking to Wallace, Katey realized she might have been wrong in her first impression of Tinker. (Ch. 15, ePg. 194) 
Have you ever been wrong about a first impression?

Wallace arranged for Katey to be invited to the Hollingsworth party. (end Ch. 15) 
She went alone.  (Ch. 16)  Would you have gone solo?

"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."(Ch. 16, Pg. 206) 
What is your city's romantic season?  Does it vary by individual perceptions or preference?

Eve and Katey met when Eve "spilled a plate of noodles" on her. (Ch. 17, ePg. 218) 
What is the strangest way you have ever made a friend?

On Katey's first night at Camp Wolcott, she "fell asleep, listening for the footsteps that weren't going to come."  (Ch. 18, Pg. 224) 
Was she hoping to hear Tinker's footsteps?  Or Wallace's? 
The next day Katey and Tinker hiked on the Appalachian trail, in Maine. (ref. Pg. 227)  Did you know that the trail began in Maine?

Can you solve Katey's crossword clues? (Ch. 19, Pg. 232)

Katey found a copy of the original rules of civility in a used book store and bought it for fifteen cents. (Ch. 19, ePg. 235) 
What is the best used book store find you've ever bought?

Katey often shared grammar knowledge with the reader.  Did you know that there is a difference between enquiries and inquiries? (ref. Ch. 19, ePg. 235)  With an "e" asks for information in a general way and with an "i" is more formal, like an investigation.

The book is full of maxims, for example, "in moments of high emotion - whether they're triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment - if the next thing you're going to say makes you feel better, then it's probably the wrong thing to say." (Ch. 20, Pg. 260)  What was your favorite maxim or gem of wisdom from the novel? 
The Appendix contains all the rules of civility.  What are some of your favorites?

Was Katey unfair when Tinker said he was done with Anne? (ref. Ch. 20, Pgs. 260-263)

Was Hank right about the true scandal (that being in Ivy Leaguer makes a difference)? (ref. Ch. 22, Pg. 276)

Were you surprised when Mr. Tate revealed who had convinced him to hire Katey? (Ch. 26, Pg. 306)

Katey seemed to have near misses with several potential suitors.  "...two friends so that they can get some practice and pass the time divertingly while they wait in the station for their train to arrive." (Ch. 14, Pg. 185)
Did you think she belonged with any of them?  Tinker, Wallace, Dicky, or someone else?  Were you surprised at who she ended up with?

Theme Ideas

Serve martinis (with olives) because Katey drinks them frequently, or onions like Ann preferred. (Ch. 1, ePg. 16, Ch. 4, ePg. 48, Ch. 10, ePg. 124)
Serve coffee, eggs and toast, like Katey and friends planned to eat after celebrating the New Year. (Ch. 1, ePg. 16)
Serve "pierogies and herring and tongue" like was served at Chernoff's. (Ch. 2, ePg. 32)  Also serve vodka.
Serve BLTs, like Katey ordered when Tinker ran into her at the diner. (Ch. 3, ePg. 37)  Tinker ordered the special - "grilled cheese stuffed with corned beef and coleslaw". (ePg. 40)  They also ate cheesecake.
Serve lobster tail, beef wellington or prime rib, like were included on the menu when Tinker took the girls to lunch (Ch. 4, ePg. 48) and oysters (ePg. 49).
Serve what they served at the Beresford: "Seafood bisque followed by tenderloin and Brussels sprouts capped off with coffee and chocolate mousse." (Ch. 5, ePg. 62)
Serve "closed-kitchen eggs". (Directions Ch. 5, ePg. 74)
Serve sherry, in honor of the cooking sherry that Tinker and Katey drank. (Ch. 5, ePg. 75)
At the dinner party after Eve and Tinker returned from Florida, they served black bean soup "with a spoonful of sherry" - no cream. (Ch. 7, ePg. 89) Pair with a burgundy wine. (Ch. 7, ePg. 90)  The main course was either tenderloin or lamb with a sauce. (Ch. 7, ePg. 92, 94)  Close the meal with coffee and chocolate mousse. (Ch. 7, ePg. 94)
Serve coffee and cinnamon donuts like Grubb had for Fran and Kate at the racetrack. (Ch. 8, ePg. 104)
There was lots of alcohol in this book, including gin (Ch. 9, ePg. 112) and champagne. (Ch. 9, ePg. 113)
Serve champagne, canapes, white wine, asparagus gratin and poussin stuffed with black truffle in honor of Katey's birthday. (Ch. 11, Pg. 136)
Serve vichyssoise like when Katey met Nathaniel Parish at the restaurant. (Ch. 12, Pg. 151)
At the shooting club, Katey and Wallace had club sandwiches and iced tea. (Ch. 14, ePg. 179)
After the museum, Katey and Wallace went to lunch at the Park.  Serve aspic, martinis and salad: iceberg, warm bacon and cold blue cheese. (Ch. 14, Pg. 182)
Serve seared lamb chops with mint jelly and cognac glaze like Wallace fixed when he and Katey wrapped gifts. (Ch. 15, Pg. 192)
The morning after Katey picked Eve up from the police station, they "drank coffee and ate fried eggs with Tabasco". (Ch. 17, ePg. 213)
Serve ham and eggs like Tinker made for the first breakfast at the Wolcott's. (Ch. 18, Pg. 225)
Serve burgers, fries and bourbon like Bitsy and Katey got at the Ritz after Katey ran out of the Chinoiserie. (Ch. 19, ePg. 240)
When Katey called in sick, she had Italian coffee with steamed milk and shaved chocolate along with a pastry. (Ch. 19, Pg. 232)

Decorate with photos from the season sections (see Title page) or other similar photos.
Decorate with a New Year's Eve theme, like the opening chapter. (Ch. 1, ePg. 13)
Decorate with pictures of the  "Endurance frozen in the Antarctic" like  Katey saw hanging in the place she and Eve had birthday drinks. (Ch. 9, ePg. 118)
Decorate with jeweled eggs with miniature scenes inside, like Katey compared the Bergdorf's windows to. (Ch. 15, ePg. 196)  Include fairy tale decorations like the Summer display. (Ch. 15, ePg. 197)
Decorate with copies of the books referenced throughout the novel: Edith Wharton (Ch. 1, ePg. 23), Hemingway (Ch. 5, ePg 69), Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth", detective novels (Ch. 5, ePgs. 73-74),  Treasure Island (Ch. 5, ePg. 75), Robinson Crusoe (Ch. 5, ePg. 75, Ch. 18, ePg. 228), Thoreau's "Walden" (Ch. 5, ePg. 75, Ch. 10, ePg. 146), E. M. Forster, "A Room with a View" (Ch. 6, ePg. 79), "Dante's Inferno", "Paradiso" (Ch. 8, ePg. 107), "Great Expectations" (Ch. 10, ePg. 127, Ch. 17, ePg. 221), Dickens (Ch. 10, ePg. 128), James Fenimore Cooper, "Last of the Mohicans", "Deerslayer", "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", "The Call of the Wild" (Ch. 18, ePg. 228), Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke and Hume and "Assorted Writings by the Father of Our Republic" (Ch. 19, ePg. 235), "The Thief of Baghdad" (Ch. 19, ePg. 243)

Visit an art exhibit, especially one of photos, like Katey and Val or meet at an art studio (Ch. 8, ePg. 100).
Play contract bridge (Ch. 5, ePg. 59) like Katey taught herself to play or Honeymoon bridge. (Ch. 14, Pg. 185)
Trade novels and divy up Hershey bars like Katey and Wallace after a day of errands and dinner out. (Ch. 15, Pg. 190)
Have a scavenger hunt like Tinker and Eve won on the ship. Include similar items, "among fifty designated treasures: a scimitar, a sifter and a wooden leg." (Ch. 19, ePg. 119)
Meet in a Chinese restaurant in recognition of where Katey had a defining moment regarding Tinker. (Ch. 19, ePg. 235)
Play the "parlor game called On the Road to Kent". (Ch. 19, ePg. 241)
Have a paper airplane contest, because Dicky was good at making them. (Ch. 22, Pg. 281)