Beginners’ Luck

Rules of Civility
Amor Towles
Viking, $26.95, 352 pp.

Ten Thousand Saints
Eleanor Henderson
Ecco, $26.99, 400 pp.

In 1947, E. B. White published an unusual travel essay in Holiday magazine about a city that was disappearing before his eyes: New York City. Specifically, his New York City, the New York City of the 1920s and ’30s that he’d lived in before removing himself to his “saltwater farm” on the coast of Maine. When he returned in ’47, he found much had changed, but not the city’s essential character. New York, he wrote, “can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck.” White concluded with a line that has been quoted ever since: “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

A recent tide of New York novels celebrates this maxim. In a way, the novels make for a tidy and fascinating fictional counter-history of the city’s last century, ranging from the giddy late-1930s New York in Amor Towles’s novel Rules of Civility, to the gritty 1980s in Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, and on to the post-9/11 world of Amy Waldman’s The Submission (see...

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About the Author

Liam Callanan is the author of the novels The Cloud Atlas and All Saints. His new short story collection, Listen, will soon be published by Four Way Books.