Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
1. What are your thoughts about the set-up in the preface in relation to the story to come? Does the framing device work? Did it give away anything?
2. T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is referenced in the book's preface and its epilogue. How is that poem central to Katey's 1966 reflections on her 1938 experiences?
3. Had the car accident not occurred, what course do you think the friendship between Tinker, Katey, and Eve would have taken?
4. When Tinker returns to his apartment, where Katey has spent the evening with Eve (who is now asleep), he kisses Katey. Why? What might his intentions have been?
5. How would you characterize Katey? Eve? Why are the two women loyal to each other? What do you think their friendship is based on and how do they keep it from falling apart? As the distance widens between Eve and Katey, what part do civility and obligation play in their friendship?
6. At the outset, Rules of Civility appears to be about the interrelationship between Katey, Tinker, and Eve; but then events lead Eve and Tinker offstage. Are Dicky Vanderwhile, Wallace Wolcott, Bitsy, Fran (Peaches), Hank Grey, and Anne Grandin as essential to Katey's story as Tinker and Eve? What role does each of them play in fashioning the Katey of the future?
7. Tinker’s elaborate proposal to Eve smacks of romance, but considering the trajectory of their relationship, his intent to wed Eve points out that, above all, Tinker is ruled by obligation. How much of what Tinker does comes from his heart and how much is based upon the feelings of civil behavior instilled in him?
8. Katey observes that Agatha Christie "doles out her little surprises at the carefully calibrated pace of a nanny dispensing sweets to the children in her care." Something similar could be said of how Katey doles out information about herself. What sort of things is she slow to reveal, and what drives her reticence?
9. After seeing Tinker with Anne Grandin at Chinoisserie, Katey indicts George Washington's "Rules of Civility" as "A do-it yourself charm school. A sort of How to Win Friends and Influence People 150 years ahead of its time." But Dicky sees some nobility in Tinker's aspiration to follow Washington's rules. Where does your judgment fall on Tinker? Is Katey wholly innocent of Tinker's crime? How are Tinker and Katey the same? Is Katey self-aware and calculating about her future or just plain lucky and adept at fitting in when she needs to?
10. A central theme in the book is that a chance encounter or cursory decision can shape one's course for decades to come. Towards the end of the novel Katey says, “It’s a bit of a cliché to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time…. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options.” Do you agree with her assessment? Why or why not?
11. When Eve says, "I like it just fine on this side of the windshield," what does she mean? And why is the life Tinker offers her so contrary to the new life she intends to pursue? What kind of person is she and what are her rules of behavior?
12. When Tinker sets out on his new life, why does he intend to start his days saying Katey's name? What does he mean when he describes Katey as someone of "poise and purpose"? Is the book improved by the four sections from Tinker's point of view, or hindered by them?
13. All of the time Katey knew Tinker, she believed he was someone completely opposite of who he turned out to be. He is not an impeccably bred, privileged socialite, but comes from a family who descended into near-poverty. Upon what are the feelings Katey harbors for Tinker based? Why does she shun the prospect of loving and being loved by Wallace yet holds on to what is essentially her non-relationship with Tinker? Should she give up on Tinker?
14. What leads Katey to come to terms with her lingering feelings for Tinker and look for him? Once she realizes he is gone (after spending the night with him), she admits that mixed in with her sadness is a slight feeling of relief. How did this influence your thoughts about her feelings for him?
15. What role does Dicky Vanderwhile play in the story? What about other minor characters such as Fran, Wallace and Bitsy? Why does Katey resist associating with Charlotte, her co-worker at the law firm, and view her so negatively?
16. What do you think of Anne Grandin’s interactions with Katey? She has never deceived Katey in the way Tinker has, but does she behaves honorably? What motives lie underneath the surface of the two women’s interactions?
17. The visual arts play an understated but key role in the book, from Walker Evan’s subway photographs and the family photographs lining Wallace Wolcott's wall (including the school picture in which Tinker appears twice) to the photographs of celebrities that Mason Tate reviews with Katey at Condé Nast, Hank Grey’s painting of Vitelli’s, the topless portraits of Fran, the obscured nude photo of Fran on the cover of the premier issue of Gotham magazine, and the pictures that end up on Katey and Valentine's wall. Why are the mediums of photography and painting fitting motifs for the book? How do the various photographs serve its themes? What do the paintings represent?
18. Other threads of imagery running through the book concern fairy tales, navigation, and the concept of the blessed and the damned. What role do these motifs play in the thematic composition of the book?
19. In the epilogue, set in 1966, Katey observes that "Right choices are the means by which life crystallizes loss." It seems that Katey’s dreams have been fulfilled both through her career and her marriage, but there is a certain wistfulness in her reflections on the past. Is her story is ultimately one of success or disappointment?
About the author
Born in 1964, Amor Towles was raised in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale College and received an M.A. in English from Stanford University where he was a Scowcroft Fellow. From 1991 to 2012, he worked as an investment professional in New York. Rules of Civility, his first book, reached the bestseller lists of The New York Times, the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times and was rated by The Wall Street Journal as one of the ten best works of fiction in 2011. It has been published in 15 languages. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children and serves on the boards of The Library of America and the Yale Art Gallery.