High and low society in
the Great Depression
New author tips his hat to 1930s Manhattan
By Matthew Robb
BY DAY, AMOR TOWLES was a hard-charging,
numbers-crunching investment guru at a Manhattan
equities firm. By night, he was penning a stylish
novel of manners, told through the aspirations of its
party-girl protagonist. Towles led this double life, of
sorts, for five years before seeing the publication of
his first novel.
If the notion of a 40-something patrician chan-
neling the aspirations of a social-climbing Russian
émigré seems ill fated, Towles (pro-
nounced “tolls”) nevertheless pulled it off
with silky aplomb. First, his freshman
work, Rules of Civility, sparked a six-fig-
ure bidding war among publishers. Then
it debuted to critical acclaim, with
National Public Radio hailing its “snappy
dialogue, sharp observations and an
array of terrifically drawn characters.”
Today, the New York Times best-seller
continues to delight, transporting readers
to 1930s Gotham, whose denizens are
emerging from the rubble of the Great
Depression while its high society continues to pop
corks as if the 1920s never stopped roaring.
Yet just as chance encounters and life-changing
decisions propel Rules of Civility, so too have they
sculpted the life of its author. In 1989, as friends
were congratulating Towles on the eve of a two-year
teaching fellowship in China, Tiananmen Square
erupted, ending his opportunity before it started.
“Suddenly,” Towles recalls from his home in
Greenwich Village, “I didn’t know where to go or
what to do, but was fearful of stumbling around, lost.”
By providence or sheer serendipity, he left California,
where he had attended Stanford University, and
headed 3,000 miles in the opposite direction—land-
Signed book giveaway
COSTCO HAS 50 SIGNED COPIES of Amor
Towles’ Rules of Civility to give away. To
enter, search for “JanBookPick” at Costco.
com and follow the instructions. Or print your
name, address and daytime phone number
on a postcard or letter and send it to: Amor
Towles, The Costco Connection, P.O. Box
34088, Seattle, WA 98124-1088.
NO PURCHASE, PAYMENT OR OPT-IN OF ANY KIND
IS NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN THIS SWEEPSTAKES.
Purchase will not improve odds of winning. Sweepstakes is sponsored
by Penguin Group, 375 Hudson St., New York, N Y 10014. Open to legal residents of the U.S. (except Puerto Rico) who are age 18 or older at the time
of entry. One entry per household. Entries must be received by February
1, 2013. Winners will be randomly selected and noti;ed by mail on or
before March 1, 2013. The value of the prize is $16. Void where prohibited.
Winners are responsible for all applicable federal, state and local taxes.
Odds of winning depend on the number of eligible entries received. Employees of Costco or Penguin Group and their families are not eligible.
I’VE SAID IT BEFORE, and
I’ll no doubt say it again:
For the best bang for your
buck, nothing beats a
book’s power to transport
you to a different place.
And, until we master time
travel, there’s also no better
way to visit the past.
If you’ve ever wondered
what 1930s New York City
was like, Amor Towles,
through his debut novel,
Rules of Civility, is one of
the best tour guides
The story’s narrator is
is Katey Kontent, a working
girl with dreams of making
it big in the publishing
industry. A chance encounter with a handsome
banker on New Year’s Eve
begins a year of Katey
making her way through
the upper tiers of New York
society. It will, I’m sure,
also mark the beginning of
readers’ love affair with
this well-crafted portrait of
New York City and a
handful of its citizens.
For more book picks,
see page 83.
ing on a friend’s doorstep in New York City. That
same evening, he met a stranger who was about to
launch an investment firm. “I joined them, and
we’ve worked together the last 21 years,” Towles says
with an analyst’s cool detachment. On January 1,
2012, he retired and now writes full time.
It took Towles one full year to write his book’s 26
chapters, and two additional years to get it publisher
ready. He describes the writing process as sheer joy,
and the make-or-break revision process
as “enormous drudgery.”
“You can write 10 pages and have a
lot of fun doing it, where you’re mashing
the environment, the characters are
coming alive, the metaphor seems sharp,
the humor or danger might be there,” he
says. “As a writer, you’re experiencing
the pleasure and freshness of that inven-
tion. But … over the next two years, you
have to improve those 10 pages word by
word by word, reading that scene a thou-
If his novel’s callow protagonist seems inordi-
nately cosmopolitan, chalk it up to Towles’ man-of-
letters pedigree shining through. For the last 20
years, the Boston native has soaked up Manhattan’s
culture and devoured literary works from around
the globe. His studies at Yale (’ 87) and Stanford
(M.A., English, ’ 89) didn’t hurt.
In Rules of Civility, Towles reminds readers that
while the Depression imposed hardship on millions,
the decade wasn’t all doom and gloom. “The 1930s
is when all of the glamorous movies of Fred Astaire
and Ginger Rogers were made, when swing music
became such a force, when Charlie Parker arrived in
New York and when the [art deco–influenced]
Rockefeller Center was built,” Towles notes. While
“darkness” swept across Germany, the response in
America “was to celebrate American progress,
American style, American glamour and optimism—
and to be entertained at the same time.”
Last October, Towles wrapped up an extended
short story that “follows one of the characters in
Rules of Civility … to where she actually ends up in
Hollywood,” he says.
Towles declares that he “can’t wait to start” his
next book. Displaying not a trace of sophomore
jitters, he says, “I’m 47 and I’ve had a 21-year
career in the investment field … so I feel
less of the pressure.” With a hearty laugh,
he adds, “I’ve got a 10-year-old and a
7-year-old, so I’ve got other things to
worry about.” C
Matthew Robb is an aficionado of ’30s music.
He writes from suburban Washington, D.C.