A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Published by Viking
Publication date: September 6th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary
When he is thirty-three Count Alexander Rostov finds himself sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest at the Metropol, a prestigious hotel in the theater district of Moscow. Initially, it doesn’t seem a particularly harsh sentence because he has already been living there in a posh suite for four years. But now, he may not leave and the suite is no more. Instead, he is banished to what was once a maid’s room on the very top floor, with a ceiling that slopes so steeply he can only stand upright in the middle of the room. From this room in this hotel we follow Count Rostov for the next thirty years in A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles’ intoxicating new novel.
Count Rostov is a character so endlessly entertaining that if he had lived in solitude at the Metropol it would be enough. How marvelous is it then, that within the constricted confines of the hotel Towles places a character whose worldview turns his jail into the world? Rather than closing himself off, Rostov is open to the people populating the Metropol. From a chef, a concierge, and a maître d’ to an elegant actress and a nine-year-old girl named Nina. Nina, who has managed to procure a master key to every room in the hotel and soon educates him on all its inner workings as he educates her on the very important subject of being a princess. Soon enough she leaves the hotel for the world outside, but when, many years later, she returns she brings him an unlikely gift, one that will change his life forever.
A life lived in a hotel might not seem as if it would make for interesting reading, but with Towles’ prodigious research and delicious imagination everything within A Gentleman in Moscow becomes fascinating. About the Count we learn early on that he only reads in chairs tilted back on two legs, never takes the elevator only the stairs and eats the exact same breakfast every day. More importantly, he is that most elusive of characters—a true gentleman. He was born into Russian nobility, but is a man with traits of gentility that go far beyond class. From the very beginning he accepts his fate and the fact that his time has passed. He does so gracefully, meeting pettiness with tolerance and humor. It is only when the Bolsheviks decide that varietals of wine are elitist and demand that the labels be removed from every single bottle in the Metropol’s extensive cellar that Count Rostov’s genial exterior cracks
For years now, with a bit of a smile, the Count had remarked that this or that was behind him—like his days of poetry or romance. But in doing so, he had never really believed it. In his heart of hearts, he had imagined that, even if unattended to, these aspects of his life were lingering somewhere on the periphery, waiting to be recalled. But looking at the bottle in his hand, the Count was struck by the realization that, in fact, it was all behind him. Because the Bolsheviks, who were so intent on recasting the future from a mold of their own making, would not rest until every last vestige of his Russia had been uprooted, shattered, or erased.
With something as simple as a bottle of wine, Towles drives home the extent of Rostov’s loss. And yet, while we pampered readers might give up in the face of such trying times, the Count does not. Even when his financial circumstances are such that he becomes a headwaiter in the hotel’s famed Boyarsky restaurant he approaches it with the same exactitude and amiability that he applies to everything in his life.
The breadth and depth of Towles’ gift at conjuring Rostov and his world is hard to overstate. Suffice it to say that within the confines of one grand old hotel Towles creates a universe that far outstrips the building’s boundaries. He populates the Metropol with characters of mystery, drama and charm and does it so perfectly that each evokes all the appropriate responses of delight, laughter, and heartbreak. Such attention to detail could make for a novel weighted down in minutiae, but the sense throughout A Gentleman in Moscow is one of lightness and fluidity. Not frivolity or fluff, but simply storytelling at its most immersive best.
This is the point when I impose judgment on a book and tell you to either avoid it or read it. I can’t do anything that calmly about A Gentleman in Moscow. I implore you to track down a copy of this book—to fight in a book store for a copy or to steal it from another patron off the holds shelf of the library. Towles has produced a novel wholly Russian in its scope but without the ponderous weight of Dostoevsky or the overwhelming war and peace of Tolstoy. This is a gem of a novel whose only fault is ending. Read it. Read it and fall in love.
He had said that our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of lucidity—a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of the life we had been meant to lead all along.