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Book Review of Table for Two by Amor Towles

Book review: Table for Two by Amor Towles

Published by Penguin, May 2024.


Official blurb

From the bestselling author of Rules of Civility, A Gentleman in Moscow, and The Lincoln Highway, a richly detailed and sharply drawn collection of stories, including a novella featuring one of his most beloved characters
Millions of Amor Towles fans are in for a treat as he shares some of his shorter fiction: six stories based in New York City and a novella set in Golden Age Hollywood.
The New York stories, most of which take place around the year 2000, consider the fateful consequences that can spring from brief encounters and the delicate mechanics of compromise that operate at the heart of modern marriages.
In Towles's novel Rules of Civility, the indomitable Evelyn Ross leaves New York City in September 1938 with the intention of returning home to Indiana. But as her train pulls into Chicago, where her parents are waiting, she instead extends her ticket to Los Angeles. Told from seven points of view, "Eve in Hollywood" describes how Eve crafts a new future for herself--and others--in a noirish tale that takes us through the movie sets, bungalows, and dive bars of Los Angeles.

My thoughts

Towles is an excellent creative writer with a flair for description and character. The first story, The Line, reminds me of the old Russian short story writers. In Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, for instance, the narrator is as much a character as those the story is about. In the first sentence, to the main character, the era, the geographical setting, and economic and political atmosphere are all introduced.


During the last days of the last Tsar, there lived a peasant named Pushkin in a small village one hundred miles from Moscow.

Pushkin is a kindly old soul, happy with his lot, and the routine of his days. Nature’s beauty surrounded him, food is on the table, and he has someone to share it with. However, Bolshevism is on the rise. Pushkin lives 100 miles from the city, yet politics reaches out its hand and draws him in through his less-satisfied wife, Irina.


In the city, Pushkin is out of his depth. There is no niche for a peasant happy with tilling fields and admiring the beauty to be found in the everyday simplicities of life. To be blunt, he’s too much of a dreamer to be a good at being a Bolshevik. Until he discovers the enjoyment of “the line”. Lining up for bread or flour for most is a chore, but here Pushkin is in his element, and this discovery leads to an unexpected boost to their lifestyle.


In The Ballad of Timothy Touchett, we are again led to the characters, setting and story through the point of view of the narrator. Timothy is a fledgling writer troubled by a common affliction for creative types, “the fear that he had no story to tell”. Instead of writing, Timothy studied the classic writers, their style, their process, and their lives. They all seemed to have a lot of experience in other areas. Experience where they had to work hard or suffered in someway providing them with the grit to craft their stories.


Timothy grew up in an ordinary family in an ordinary town where nothing much happened. Like The Line, Timothy discovers a talent quite by accident. Well, someone else discovers the talent and manoeuvres the naïve writer for his own profit. It starts with the offer of a job and then the offer of a little side money doing a favour for an old friend, and so on.


As I read, I was almost shaking my head and tut-tutting at poor Timothy’s degree of ingenuousness. He is prepared to accept everything at face value and even when he does finally question what is happening, his employer easily sways him.


Towles lays out the writer’s path carefully and clearly. We can predict what is going to happen, but Timothy cannot and there lies the hook to this delightful story.


BETWEEN YOU, ME, AND the fencepost, a night at Carnegie Hall was never my idea of a good time.

The Bootlegger was my favourite of the short stories. Towles shares (on his website) that the story was born when the author attended a concert at Carnegie Hall and the person next to him was secretly recording the music. Outraged, the incident stayed with him, and like all talented writers, he inserted that emotion into a story with wonderful effect. Again, the descriptions and sense of place are excellent. As is the depth of feeling of the characters, Tommy and his wife, Mary—the story’s narrator.


The development of the storyline and the character is subtle, and, near the end, surprising. While we learn more about Tommy’s character “flaw” and the consequences of his actions, it is Mary who shows the most change.

Tommy, the narrator, and the bootlegger sit together in a weekly concert series. The concert described best in the story is “Steven Isserlis performing Bach’s Gamba Sonatas.” So much so that I went to my Apple Music account and downloaded “Bach Cello Suites” by Isserlis.


I felt for all three equally; Tommy, whose nature it is to fixate on an issue, the bootlegger whose reasons for committing the crime seem valid, and Mary, who acknowledges and trusts Tommy, flaws, and all.


The final short story is The DiDomenico Fragment. Here Towles shows his mastery of short story writing, plotting, and planning. Mr Percival Skinner, former art dealer, is an ageing gent who grew up and lived with plenty. He has found, in his retirement, that living with less is not so easy, especially when there are appearances (even faded ones) to maintain. An opportunity presents itself to restore his finances somewhat with the sudden interest in an old Renaissance painting owned by his family—well, parts of it. The Annunciation by Giuseppe DiDomenico was owned in its entirety several generations previously and passed down through the family in fragments. One of which Mr Skinner owned. An investor was interested in purchasing his fragment and any other that may exist. Thus starts a plot to get each fragment and make a little money.


As with the other stories in this collection, there’s a side benefit to the strategy Mr Skinner pursues… but you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out.


This is already the longest book review I’ve ever written, so I’ll quickly move on to the novella Eve in Hollywood. The plot for this came out of Towles’ Rules of Civility and one of the more minor characters in that story called Eve. Towles felt that there was more to Eve than Rules of Civility allowed for. This novella takes care of that by starting at the point where Eve leaves the novel—on the train to Los Angeles.


Eve’s original plan was to disembark at Chicago. Mysteriously though, she extended her ticket all the way to LA.


From the point of view of various characters, we not only discover why Eve didn’t go home but also the era in Hollywood when Olivia de Havilland’s acting career was about to change tack, and who the hell is behind a blackmail attempt that has drawn in Eve, “Livvy”, a former Hollywood actor, a retired police detective, and several corrupt LA personages?


My book review of Table for Two by Amor Towles is my longest yet! I enjoyed every part and I’m sure it will add extra depth to Rules of Civility, which I’ll be reading soon.


Also, by this author is A Gentleman in Moscow, which is currently screening on one of the streaming services here in Australia, and The Lincoln Highway. They’re now on my reading list as well.

 

Author Info:

Amor Towles is an American author. His novels and short story collection have collectively sold over six million copies and translated into more than thirty languages. His work includes: Rules of Civility (2011), A Gentleman in Moscow(2016), The Lincoln Highway (2021) and Table for Two (2024).


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