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Table for Two by Amor Towles




I have read all of Amor Towles’s novels and have loved the epic quality and evocation of a past era in A Gentleman in Moscow, Rules of Civility, and The Lincoln Highway


Towles's articulate and witty prose style suits these novels, which carry the flavour of place and time: Russia in the 1920s and America in the 1930s and 1950s.


This unusual collection, Table for Two, consists of six short stories connected to a mostly contemporary New York, followed by a novella (a long short or a short long piece of fiction depending on your perspective) entitled ‘Eve in Hollywood’ and set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s.

 

The collection begins with a story about a Russian peasant and his wife at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution and the way that forming a line and joining a queue influenced their fortunes. This is a brilliant short story in that the characters are sympathetically conveyed, but this story also reads like an allegory, providing a clear perspective on the social and economic processes at work in this period of history and the machinery of capitalism, communism and human endeavour.


Other stories are of the millenium in New York: a young man's desire to make a name as a writer in the bustling metropolis but without having the life experience to provide the substance about which to write; a traveller whose plane is delayed by bad weather and has to unexpectedly stay the night in a city hotel, and who finds himself caught up in the life of a fellow businessman; a concert-goer incensed at the surreptitious recording of Carnegie Hall concerts by an elderly man in a raincoat seated next to him; an art dealer who schemes to make a financial gain through family connections and rare artwork; and an older woman who is mystified by the real purpose of her second husband's outings .

 

These six short stories have the appeal of the worldly-wise, older gentleman telling stories by the fireside of an evening, regaling an audience with observations of human nature that are tempered with wry good humour.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of these stories for their elegant, careful and considered telling and engaging descriptions of the greedy and the naive, the foolish and the wise, the embarrassed and the opportunistic characters in his world. 

 

The novella that follows the short stories, ‘Eve in Hollywood’, takes up the story of the young woman in Rules of Civility who, on leaving New York in 1938 to return to her home town of Chicago, on a whim, fails to disembark and takes the train all the way to the west coast. Eve is a strong-minded, independent young woman with an energy and warmth that earns the respect of those around her. Her limp and the distinctive scar on the side of her face, often mentioned but never explained, provide the motivation to read the novel which comes before. But the novella is a separate story and requires no knowledge of The Rules of Civility.


I feel this story has arisen from the author's need to develop her character as he seems very fond of her, and she has all the gung-ho spirit required to save the innocent actress and hobble the baddies in this intriguing adventure. Eve takes up residence in the Beverley Hills Hotel with its elegant facade, bungalows and pool, discreet, obliging staff and elegant guests. Her desire to experience the world begins with exploring the burgeoning city of Los Angeles. Eve, with her direct and engaging manner, makes friends quickly with an ageing, overweight actor only too aware of his slippage down the social scale, an aspiring stuntman in a chauffeur's uniform and the one and only Olivia de Havilland, an actress on the rise. Illicit photographs and blackmail catalyse the story into one of cat and mouse, detective work and classic mystery. Taking place in the booming pre-war film industry of Hollywood, with its world of film studios, glamour and social connections, peopled by the rich, the famous (including the actual ones like Selznick, Warner and Errol Flynn) and the aspiring, the has-beens and the wannabees, the good, the opportunistic and the plain bad, this is an old-school mystery and adventure. The title of this novella leads one to believe that this could be part of a series of adventures for the indomitable Miss Ross. First, Eve in Hollywood and then, could there be another adventure for Eve somewhere else?

 

Amor Towles is an awesome storyteller whose narratives create a world of believable characters, carefully and satisfyingly packaged. Witty and gently humorous. Highly recommend!


Reviewer: Clare Lyon

Hutchinson Heinemann

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