Gnome Notes: Emerson Sistare – Amor Towles weaves tapestry in ‘Table for Two: Fictions’

“Table for Two: Fictions,” by Amor Towles

“Table for Two: Fictions,” by Amor Towles —COURTESY PHOTO

By EMERSON SISTARE

For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 04-17-2024 8:45 AM

A book review by The Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough.

“Table for Two: Fictions,” by Amor Towles

While some authors have name-recognition, others have “title-recognition” -- when one or more their works is so widely read that it has overshadowed its author.

Amor Towles is one of these authors. The mind behind “A Gentleman in Moscow,” “The Lincoln Highway” and “Rules of Civility,” Towles brings his wit, charm and deft insight to his latest book, “Table for Two: Fictions.” Albeit a departure in format, these being short stories and a novella, Towles is more than up to the difficult task of writing short fiction that is enticing, immersive, does not say too much or too little, leaves the reader with a feeling of completion and does it all in only a few dozen pages.

Beginning with a highly memorable short tale about an onion-farming couple in rural Soviet Russia, Towles takes us on a journey with following our new comrades as they move to Moscow. Affectionately called “our heroes” by Towles, Irina and Pushkin make the big-city move based on Irina’s desire to be the very best communist she can be. While Irina quickly ascends the ladder of communist hierarchy, Pushkin struggles to find his place in Moscow’s busy hustle and bustle.

As would happen, Pushkin’s kind and amiable nature ingratiates him with the otherwise prickly crowds queuing each morning for their government-allotted rations and supplies. Much to his own surprise, Pushkin finds that he has a knack for holding people’s place in line, which not only makes those who he stands in line for all the merrier and earns Pushkin a bit of extra bread or cloth or whatever the line was waiting for, but attracts the attention of certain enterprising young people.

Soon, Pushkin has inadvertently founded a very capitalist, very well-organized and very-much-privatized business of substitute line-standers; if you don’t want to wait in line, or you need to be in two lines at once, call Pushkin and your worries will be solved! Irina, unaware of the economic nature of Pushkin’s enterprise, is overjoyed at the rising social status she and her husband share in Moscow, much of it off the back of Pushkin becoming acquainted with various well-to-dos who have better things to do than wait in lines!

All of this merriment and frivolity comes to a head when Pushkin waits in the expatriate line, the longest and most difficult line to wait in, only to realize that by completing his trial, he has just cemented his and his wife’s fates -- they’re both to be deported to New York!

Towles’s stories are a beautiful tapestry of whimsical acts, poignant moments, charming characters and complex motivations, all set against a stunning backdrop of the 20th century’s great melting pot, New York City. I could not get enough of each of Towles’ ensemble casts. From Irina and Pushkin, to a man who finds he has a very special talent for signature-forging, to a Manhattan penthouse divided on the issue of which is a more-heinous crime, roller skating or adultery, Towles hits every beat every time.

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His fictions are as emotionally rich and morally substantive as you would like them to be. Whether you are looking for an episodic escape before bed or a satirical commentary on high-dollar luxury collectibles and what that says about our current socio-economic climate, these masterful fictions will not leave you wanting.

Emerson Sistare is owner of The Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough.