Rules of Civility takes its title from young George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, all 110 of which appear in the novel's appendix. Like the literary touchstones he evokes — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss — Towles, a principal at a Manhattan investment firm with English degrees from Yale and Stanford, writes with grace and verve about the mores and manners of a society on the cusp of radical change.
Towles uses the somewhat contrived device of a long flashback to tell his story, but it works. His starting point is the 1966 opening of Walker Evans' "Many Are Called" show at The Museum of Modern Art, attended by his then-middle-aged, urbane narrator and her husband. Among the photographs — in which Evans captured New Yorkers on the subway with a hidden camera in the late 1930s — the narrator recognizes two shots, taken a year apart, of a man she used to know named Tinker Grey. Seeing these photographs sends her back to reminiscences of the year she met Grey, a turning point in her life.