If you are a reader who picks up "Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles and the book doesn't make it onto your Top Five list of novels read in the past three years, I'm going to be very worried about you.

This book is simply magnificent. A magnificent debut, for the first-time author Towles, but more than that: just a truly creative, brilliant, different book -- one that succeeds at feeling both like a throwback to a Jamesian era of well-developed sentences undergirding fully-formed thoughts, and completely fresh. A tricky balancing act, that.

Yet Towles, an unheard-of writer who went to Yale and now works at an investment firm in Manhattan, manages it with not just finesse, but flair. He writes like a novelist on his 10th book, not his first. And he makes us impatient for his next piece of fiction.

"Rules" is set in a different place and time: New York City, in 1938 -- the fading days of the Depression, a time of troubling portents and dizzying new opportunities, the latter especially open to those with money in the bank or trust fund.

In the book's opening scenes, we meet the narrator and heroine, a law-firm typist named Katey Kontent (her last name may be the only clunky thing about this book, but we're willing to make allowances). Katey is a single 25-year-old with a razor-sharp intellect and even quicker wit.

"That's how quickly New York City comes about -- like a weathervane -- or the head of a cobra. Time tells which," she ruminates at one point.

Katey is also independent, and -- there is no other word for it -- fierce. She's easily the most impressive heroine this reader has met in a novel in many moons.

As "Rules" opens, Katey is out drinking on New Year's Eve with a bachelorette friend, Eve. Clad in evening clothes they share to double their wardrobes, the two working-class women meet a wealthy young man named Tinker Grey, who is slumming for the evening in the jazz bar that Katey and Eve frequent.

The three young people hit it off, spending one of those evenings together on which lifelong friendships -- and sometimes more -- are based. Tinker's arrival seems especially portentous to the two women, as they are fascinated by the ways of New York's privileged moneyed classes -- and Tinker, ordering champagne and driving expensive roadsters, opens a window onto a way of life they had only imagined.

The narrative that begins from that one memorable New Year's Eve stretches both backward and forward in time. We see, through Katey's recollections, how both Katey and Eve came to be in Manhattan -- and why they make the choices they do. These are two young women with one eye sharply trained on the future -- and unwilling to settle.

Eve is particularly likable, a Midwesterner by birth, gorgeously beautiful until the novel in a fateful twist takes that beauty away, and always self-reliant -- sort of a cowboy in satin sandals and a sheath gown. When she roars off into the sunset, quite literally, you cheer her on (and know she'll be just fine in the mid-20th century).

Among other things, Towles delights in the brains of his heroine, Katey. From her lips -- and through her ever-questioning brain -- flow ideas and phrases that are endlessly thought-provoking, amusing and wry.

"By the time the check came, the champagne was catching up with me," Katey narrates at one point. "I gathered my bag and set my sights on the door. The brunette in the suit walked past me toward the bathrooms. She gave me the cold unfriendly stare of an old enemy at an unpopular peace."

We don't like everything Katey does, necessarily, or every choice she makes, but we certainly enjoy the ride inside her mind. "Rules," which takes its title from a list of rules for behavior followed by the young George Washington and cultivated by one of the characters, is about, ultimately, the ways that people find their way into places where they can get what they need: money, status, security, love. It's about the surprising things that people can do, and how those things can come to seem perfectly acceptable. It's about how much you must be willing to forgive in order to keep a friend, gain a foothold in another socioeconomic class or recognize the right love.

Katey does not get the ending we expect; then again, people often don't. Still, she seems happy with where her life takes her. Tinker, Eve, these other unforgettable characters? Towles' novel is like life in this: People control very little, mess up much of what they do choose -- and learn to live with the results.

Charity Vogel oversees The News' book club and is a News reporter.


Rules of Civility

By Amor Towles


335 pages; $27