Table for Two: Fictions

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Release Date: 
April 2, 2024
Reviewed by: 

“a delicious, delightful read . . .”

Amor Towles is a wonderful weaver of tales, short and long. Known for longer works like A Gentleman in Moscow, in this volume he delivers six short stories and a novella of 214 pages. And the author does not disappoint in his ability to weave fact, fantasy, description, time, and place. Though the book is divided into New York for the first six short stories and Los Angeles for the novella, the first story takes place principally in Moscow. Not the Moscow of the Gentleman, the Moscow outside of the Hotel Metropol in the early 20th century.

“The Line” is a cleverly told story of a man who creates a business of waiting in line. Waiting in line? Of course, everyone had to wait in line in the Soviet Union, especially in the early days, (also in the latter days). And those who waited in line for someone else were rewarded, and of course during a day it was possible to stand in more than one line and be rewarded accordingly.

Then one day Pushkin is standing in the line for a visa for someone else, but they don’t show. Pushkin is granted a visa to New York, ends up there with his wife, but she leaves him at the dock. He wanders down Broadway toward a steeple, sees a line, and the story ends. “The Line” is a glorious, well-detailed story of the time in Russia, but the ending that takes place in New York is hurried. The author might have lingered longer, provided more promise for the Pushkin the reader had grown fond of.

“The Ballad of Timothy Touchett” is the story of a man who forges authors’ signatures in first editions. The books are then sold by the bookstore owner who employs Timothy. The tale is brightly and knowledgably told with a digression on the history of signatures and Timothy’s reflection on the ethics of what he is doing. The skeleton of the story is reminiscent of Lee Israel’s Can You Ever Forgive Me, her story of forging letters from famous authors. An observant reader might look for a discrepancy between the detection of the crime and Timothy’s study of signatures.

The strongest stories in the collection are “Hasta Luego” and “I Will Survive.” They are strong because they feature ordinary people in rather ordinary circumstances where something occurs to create a stressful situation. In the first story a delayed flight throws two men together for a night of drinking. But Jerry learns by the happenstance of picking up the wrong phone from Smitty’s wife that her husband has fallen off the wagon. He’s been on for a year, kids are involved. The story goes through Jennifer’s pleading with Jerry to stay by her husband even though Jerry has to miss his flight. The story is well staged, and Jerry and Jennifer are emphatic characters. 

“The DiDominico Fragment” is about a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation by this artist. A creation of Towles imagination, though it might have been Dominico Veneziano. In any event, the story is a wonderful send up of a con game in the art world, a lesson on the various Renaissance depictions of the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy, a history of the Metropolitan Museum, and the sprightliness of a young boy. It is Towles at his most enjoyable.

The novella is titled Eve in Hollywood. This story takes place in 1938 when the names in Hollywood were de Havilland (aka Dehavvy), Davis, Gable, Flynn, Warner, and Selznick. The tale that Towles tells revolves around studio rivalries, star and starlet jealousies, romances, pool parties—everything the reader has heard about the good old days. Into this milieu Towles inserts Eve Ross, a bright saucy dame who befriends Dehavvy, and an ex-cop she met on the train coming West. The story revolves around nude photos of stars being used for blackmail. It’s a tale well worthy of Chandler. It seems though that Eve Ross might have gotten more credit for her role in nabbing the blackmailers. She’s on the scene at all the crucial moments, but how/why she’s there is not explained—as opposed to guys whose detailed reasoning is textbook. And what is her future? No inkling.

Read this book? Of course. It is a delicious, delightful read from which the reader will learn a lot, have fun, laugh, and cry, but also wonder why the author didn’t do just a bit more, give us endings befitting his characters.