In Amor Towles’s witty and slyly brutal debut novel, Rules of Civility, the protagonist is one Katey Kontent. You stress the second syllable: con-tent, as in “satisfied.”
Only problem is, Katey isn’t.
It’s 1938 as the story opens, and Katey has just about had it with the narrow options facing a young woman in Depression-era Manhattan. By day she’s a drone in a typing pool. By night she’s free to roll her eyes at men’s advances in bars and dance halls, so long as she drags herself back to her Flatiron District boardinghouse before its midnight curfew.
Enter Tinker Grey — a well-spoken, seemingly well-heeled banker who brings some zip into the lives of Katey and her roommate, Eve. No sooner has Tinker ushered Katey to a seat at the swanky 21 Club, however, than she begins to wonder what it means to have arrived. How did this Tinker fellow get to be so wealthy, anyhow? And why is he so evasive about his past? Snooping in his apartment, Katey discovers a book on his nightstand listing 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation,” written by George Washington when he was a teenager. Why would a purported member of the gentry be clinging to some fusty manual on good manners?