Intimate Orchestrations: On Amor Towles’s “Table for Two”

The main character of Amor Towles’s debut, Rules of Civility, slips into a movie theater in the middle of a Marlene Dietrich film and watches the second half, then stays to watch the first half in the next showing. In the movies, she says, “things looked dire at the midpoint and were happily resolved at the end,” but this viewing method is “truer to life.” 

Throughout his body of work, Towles cultivates his characters’ authenticity and positions himself as the authority on their stories until they seem truer than life. His new collection reflects his intimate understanding of their lives even through the title, Table for Two: each piece contains a pivotal scene, with two people seated together, their lives poised to change dramatically. 

In these seven new pieces (six short stories and one novella), readers eavesdrop on these conversations and, if they’re familiar with Towles, they spot echoes and reverberations, even direct connections, with his previous work. Towles is keenly aware of his audience, and he rewards loyalty. The four books almost read like a two-thousand-page-long story: a Towlesian opus.

The new novella, “Eve in Hollywood,” for instance, focuses on the movie-goer’s best friend. It comprises the second half of Table for Two (unless you believe in starting a story in the middle, then it’s the beginning). In the first story, a character rips out a photograph from a 1920s magazine, and the image described is the cover image of Towles’s debut, also hearkening back to that novel.

Towles’s stories consistently urge a backward glance, although only one in this new collection reaches back one hundred years to the era in Russia that sparked his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, wherein “times…change relentlessly. Inevitably. Inventively.” Characters respond to pressures and opportunities, and readers familiar with both the story and the novel gain understanding, by contrasting experiences with characters of different classes, who’ve made contrasting decisions. 

Questions of agency are core throughout, as illustrated by this bit in The Lincoln Highway about how “the events of life can begin to seem random,” but if you peer more closely “when a piano falls out of a window, there’s a good chance you’ll know why he deserved it.” Readers trust that Towles knows the story behind every piano in that small town, and Manhattan is just another town as Eve’s friend observes: “just ten miles long and a mile or two wide.”

New York City is the dominant setting in Table for Two’s first half, whether from the perspective of a newcomer or a lifelong resident, whether impoverished or wealthy characters. From a comfortable and lofty perch, Manhattan is sensorily rich:

“Feeling the lingering pleasure of a job well done and a meal well eaten, he listened with satisfaction to the sounds rising from the street eight stories below: the honking of horns, the shouting of drunkards, the barking of dogs, even the siren of a police car. Together, they all combined to form the symphony that is the city of Manhattan on a warm summer night.” 

Because class dominates Towles’ writing, some characters listen to the city’s symphony (and that siren plays a significant role in a later scene, so subtly do Towles’s narratives intertwine), while characters in the fifth story have a membership at Carnegie Hall. His characters navigate rapidly changing situations—adjusting to a new country or a new address, whether they have collections of art or autographs, whether speeding on roller-skates or rereading a favorite novel—but, as Towles observes, “there is nothing that a human will adapt to more quickly than an improved standard of living.”

The stories’ beginnings are quietly insistent, whether characters are peering out between the slats of a blind or sitting in a library musing on their future. They have fledgling and failing careers, postponed flights and extended rail passages, dreams concealed and pursued, and the echoes between them create a complicated web of verisimilitude that integrally satisfies readers’ deep yearning to believe these characters exist. (And Towles’s characters believe in stories too: Dos Passos and Dumas, Hemingway and Dickens, Christie and Auster.) And if not everything is happily resolved, that’s truer to life.

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One character describes a Carnegie Hall performance as not only uplifting but “each individual phrase seemed to follow so naturally, so inevitably upon the last that a slumbering spirit deep within you, suddenly awakened, was saying: Of course, of course, of course….” It’s this kind of twinning, surprise with predictability, that has garnered Amor Towles so many loyal fans. 

Readers whose affections are attached to one of his characters or settings will have their favorites, but those drawn to Towles’s authoritative storyteller’s voice and familiar preoccupations will murmur Of course, of course, of course as each of these seven offerings resolves. 

Table for Two
By Amor Towles
Published April 2, 2024

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