This story is set at the elite Hamden College, and centres around the lives of the privileged students Sean Bateman, Paul Denton and Lauren Hynde. The three become involved in a strange love triangle involving endless parties, love letters from an unnamed admirer, an abortion, some attempted suicides, and a successful one. Sean dates Lauren, who used to date Paul. Paul is attracted to Sean, and by his own accounts sleeps with him, but Sean’s narration suggests that these encounters don’t take place. In the background are characters such as Lauren’s emotionally and geographically remote boyfriend Victor Johnson, Sean’s brother Patrick, Paul’s mother Eve, as well as various drug dealers, sexual partners and people who the main characters think that they might know, but can't be sure about.
Narration is given by the novel’s various protagonists, as well as some minor characters who add an outsider’s perspective. Fans of “Less Than Zero” (1985) will enjoy a brief cameo appearance by that novel’s main character, Clay. Some of the funniest moments of the novel are the results of these differing perceptions. This, however, also allows the reader to see the heartbreaking distance which exists between the characters – what they fail to understand about each other, what they long to say to each other, and the ways in which they yearn to connect with each other but cannot. Ellis makes his first and last use of female narrators in this book. It isn't difficult to see why this device was quickly abandoned by Ellis. While his male characters are clearly shallow and at times unlikeable, they can be related to and their is no denying a certain charm in much of their spoiltness, hypocrisy and waywardness. It is possible to feel a sympathy with Lauren Hynde only at her bleakest moments - for much of the rest of the novel, she tends to come across as desperate and annoying, and the other girls in the novel don't fare much better. Ellis's sensitive portrayal of Eve Denton, however, suggests that he is not unable to use a believable female voice. Whether or not the female narrators of "The Rules of Attraction" were intended to be as grating as they are, they must simply be endured, by both the novel's reader and its male characters.
As is characteristic of Ellis’s work, many of the characters have made appearances in his earlier works, and will be back in later ones. As previously mentioned, Clay of “Less Than Zero” has his say on the goings-on of Camden, and Patrick Bateman, possibly Ellis’s most famous character, appears briefly as the older brother of Sean. Lauren Hynde, a major character of “The Rules of Attraction” will appear later in 1998’s “Glamorama”, in which Victor Johnson is the main character. References to Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” (1992) can also be found in the form of sentences referring to “the classics majors” who are Tartt’s main characters. The fictional Hamden College is largely based on Bennington College, which Tartt and Ellis attended together. This intertextuality is one of the ways in which Ellis creates the impression of a very real world with very real characters. The device allows the narrative to suggest that Ellis’s characters will always have lives more complex than the part of them that can be viewed by a reader, and multi-faceted personalities which cannot be fathomed simply by reading through two hundred pages or so of Ellis’s writing. Similarly, Ellis creates the impression that the story is as unfinished as any portion of life with his use of incomplete sentences at the beginning and end of the novel. There are those who state that Ellis's lack of detail leads directly to a lack of realism, but the opposite could also be argued. We are as perplexed by the little mysteries of Ellis's novel's world as we are to solving those which exist in our own lives, and as intrigued by them.
It must be noted that there are some ways in which “The Rules of Attraction” varies widely from Ellis’s other work. The setting is preppy rather than trendy, there is significantly less use of the cocaine which becomes a trademark of Ellis’s other stories, and the protagonists offer readers just a little more insight into their characters. The trademark Ellis debauchery is still there, but it is somewhat subdued in the WASP-infested, East Coast environment in which it occurs this time. Perhaps this is the novel in which Ellis appears most clearly as a moralist, as his characters' actions lead directly to the unhappy events that befall them. To those readers who feel that many of Ellis’s devices are clichéd, “The Rules of Attraction” might be a refreshing change.
Those who enjoy the book should also watch Roger Avary’s 2002 film adaptation. Those who don’t want "The Rules of Attraction" to end should turn to Ellis’s “The Informers” (1994) or Tartt’s “The Secret History” for an extension of the world that Ellis has created in this novel. For another satirical look at campus life set in a later period, try Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons" (2004).