Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
With his second novel, Amor Towles introduces us to A Gentleman in Moscow, the elegant Count Alexander Rostov. We become immersed in his story and his world, which consists of an aristocratic past and his new life in house-arrest at the grand Hotel Metropole, across the street from the Kremlin. 1922 Moscow, and the post-revolutionary years of tumultuous Russian history scroll by outside, but Rostov’s saga takes place almost entirely within the walls of his luxurious prison.
A member of the old guard, he was living the high life, ensconced in suite # 317, until he ran afoul of the newly-minted Bolshevik government, which accused him of writing a seditious poem. Unceremoniously booted out of his grand rooms, he is sentenced to confinement in decidedly less posh accommodations in attic quarters on the 6th floor. The firing squad, or a quick transfer to Siberia, are his options if he is ever caught setting foot outside the Metropole.
The next 30 years unfold as the Count makes a life for himself, so very different from the one he may have planned on. Sophisticated and erudite, he seems to be a master of all trades, despite having never done an honest day’s work. But he must, as all comrades, get a job, eventually becoming a waiter at the fine dining restaurant he previously frequented. A job which, to no one’s no surprise, he performs with panache. A man of impeccable personal habits and refined taste, he is a studious follower of routines, suave and sophisticated. But he turns out to be not just another vapid member of the upper crust, and over the course of the narrative we come to see his wisdom, insight, courage and kindness of heart.
Unlike many novels of Russia, this one does not dwell on the drear, snow, ice and ubiquitous pain of the Russian people. The grim presence of Stalin and Khrushchev looms, but politics mostly stays in the shadows. The threat is always there, as it most certainly was in that era, but it never steals the Count Rostov Show. Cozy and warm inside the Metropole, a whole separate world exists with its lively cast of characters.
The members of the hotel staff are transformed over time from the Count’s servants to his friends, confidants, and family. He also has romantic encounters with a glamorous Hollywood star and a lovely fatherly relationship with the precocious young hotel guest, Nina. You like these people and root for them. With the possible exception of the resident Bolshevik, with whom Rostov has an amusing contest of wits. You end up pitying the hapless bureaucrat, who is no match for the clever Count.
Towles does a beautiful job combining themes of romance, parenting, loyalty, and survival. The Count makes the best of what he is given, with humor and grace and his existence becomes an example, despite his misfortunes, of the beauty of the human connection. The author is also a master of detail and creating an ambiance. Written with flair and style, the language is sometimes flowery and the artistic references not always easily accessible, but they are in perfect keeping with the character and his story.
This captivating tale is clever and elegant. It makes you chuckle while also tugging at your heartstrings. Technically historical fiction, it provides a view of Russian history through the eyes of one man who undergoes a metamorphosis, as does the world outside the doors of his gilded cage. The learned Count schools you in a variety of subjects, since he is seemingly good at everything, but you never dislike him. His soft heart and his faith in himself and others charm you in the end.
A Gentleman in Moscow is a surprisingly upbeat treat, filled with history, romance, suspense, family drama, literature, food and wine, politics and a little cloak and dagger thrown in for good measure. If you enjoy it, you might also like to try Towles first novel, Rules of Civility, which was also widely acclaimed.