How many lives can one author live? In new short stories, Amor Towles invites us along for the ride

Man seated outdoors
Amor Towles, author of “Table for Two.”
(Dmitri Kasterine)

Book Review

Table for Two: Fictions

By Amor Towles
Viking: 464 pages, $32
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In three bestselling novels over eight years, Amor Towles has established himself as one of our most beloved contemporary novelists, exhibiting a chameleon-esque ability to inhabit vastly different settings and characters in a style uniquely his own, yet never the same from book to book.

He can write elegantly and persuasively from the point of view of young women looking to make their mark in 1938 Manhattan, as he did with “Rules of Civility,” in which the intricacies of New York society are revealed to be as Darwinian as any jungle. With “A Gentleman in Moscow,” Towles transported us to 1920s Russia, where an unapologetic aristocrat is exiled to a once-grand hotel by the incoming socialist regime, and eventually forced to join the ranks of the proletariat. And in 2021’s “The Lincoln Highway,” we follow four boys as they embark on an enthralling road trip that takes them from 1950s Nebraska to a New York City filled with danger and delight.

Cover of "Table for Two"

Towles’ latest is the superb short fiction collection “Table for Two.” For fans who worry that a volume comprising six stories and a novella won’t serve up the deeper delights of his novels, prepare to eat your hat: This may be Towles’ best book yet. Each tale is as satisfying as a master chef’s main course, filled with drama, wit, erudition and, most of all, heart.

Case in point: “Hasta Luego,” the third story in the volume, involves a chance encounter at LaGuardia Airport between a debonair political consultant named Jerry — who could be Towles’ twin — and an amiable schlub named Smitty. The two are thrown together for an evening in Manhattan when their flight is canceled and they are routed to a Midtown hotel for the night. After checking into their rooms, they repair to the bar for their meal, and the drinks flow.

For Jerry, the many tequila shots they consume into the wee hours pose only the risk that he may be hung over the next day. For Smitty, though, the stakes are much higher, something Jerry learns when he mistakenly leaves the bar with his new acquaintance’s phone and receives a series of concerned calls from Smitty’s wife, Jennifer. At first Jerry doesn’t see how Smitty’s dilemma should concern him, but by the time morning comes, Jerry’s studied nonchalance has evolved into something more like compassion. It’s a perfectly constructed story that had me in tears.


“Eve in Hollywood” is the book’s headliner. It’s a novella that occupies half the book’s 400-plus pages, and deserves every bit of that real estate. Its heroine, Eve Ross, will be recognizable to readers of “Rules of Civility” as its Holly Golightly-esque character whose life unalterably changes when a car accident in Manhattan leaves her scarred.

We’re fortunate that Towles wasn’t entirely done with the enigmatic Eve. In the new story’s opening scene — which is as tight and suspenseful as a Hitchcock film — she’s on a train out of New York bound for Chicago. The year is 1938, and the plan is to move back in with her parents in Indiana. But on a whim, when the conductor announces their approach to Union Station, Chicago, she decides to pay the extra fare and head to L.A. (Defeat averted!) There Eve takes center stage amid con men, retired cops, movie studio heads and such film stars as Olivia de Havilland, who is just being cast in “Gone With the Wind.”

If Eve was a semi-tragic figure in her first literary outing, here she has reclaimed the verve and spirit of which recent events might have robbed her. Her personality shines even brighter now, but the vulnerability is gone, and in its place is an unshakable belief in her own instincts and intelligence. She has become adept at sniffing out troublemakers, but she’s equally proficient at recognizing a kind soul when she sees one. This noir-ish tale of police corruption, exploitation and 1930s Beverly Hills elan is an ode to such hard-boiled crime masters as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but with a feminist twist.

In the remaining stories — all set in Manhattan during various periods — desperate financial straits prompt desperate schemes, which most of the time leave the perpetrators with pockets emptier than when they started. Few salvage lessons from their failures, yet somehow, they remain sympathetic, even endearing. It’s true that Towles is a polymath whose knowledge of such varied topics as finance, art collection and classical music can feel a little daunting at times, but these stories make clear that, at heart, he is a humanist with deep compassion for even the faultiest among us.

While known primarily as a novelist, the author is not entirely new to short fiction: In 1989, his Stanford master’s thesis, “The Temptations of Pleasure,” was published in the Paris Review. After graduate school, the Boston native moved to New York City, where he shared an apartment in the East Village and chipped away at his goal of writing a novel. But when Towles finally finished that book, he deemed it unfit for publication. He stored it away. Broke and uncertain of his literary future, he turned to a career in investment banking, where he stayed put for 20 years.

On weekends, he worked on what became “Rules of Civility,” and when it was sold at auction to his publisher, he retired from banking and turned to writing full time. He describes his process as one that entails “Plan, design, outline,” which is a system that must work well for him, as his three books have sold 6 million copies. Towles has also said he jots down ideas for future books on index cards and keeps multiple notebooks in which he explores potential plotlines or character arcs. It should be no wonder that “Table for Two” could spring from such a treasure trove.


On the final page of “Hasta Luego,” as Jerry finally makes his way home after being stranded with Smitty, he reflects on his imperfections — that he doesn’t remember birthdays; feels compelled to complain whenever inconvenienced; allows his own priorities to come first, even when it comes to loved ones, including his wife. In fact, he realizes, he hasn’t been very considerate of his wife. But perhaps his rendezvous with Smitty was transformative: “As I stood there in the customer service line thinking of all that had just transpired, what I found myself hoping, what I found myself almost praying for, was that despite all my flaws, when the time came, as it surely would, my wife would be willing to fight for me as hard as Jennifer had fought for her husband.”

Leigh Haber is a writer, editor and publishing strategist. She was director of Oprah’s Book Club and books editor for O, the Oprah Magazine.