Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles


He can’t leave his hotel. You won’t want to.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility–a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel.

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

It’s always a shock, after you finish a particularly good book, to look up and see the world go about its business with perfect indifference. I struggle for language to adequately express the feeling that came over me then; one which emitted, it seemed, its own gravity, holding me in place. The trance of being so immersed in my reading wrapped me in its cold, tingling embrace, so that when I turned the last page, I was almost astonished and stepped forth with a sense of unreality. Like I couldn’t remember being there, the way one feels when they’re driving home and they suddenly find themself in their garage, unable to remember the actual drive.

I’ve no doubt that this book will reside, for many years, in the low-lit boudoir of my memories. I am already looking forward to reading it again.

So, what’s this book about?

The glory that had shone upon Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov—a member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt—vanishes when he is accused of writing a poem deemed counterrevolutionary and unceremoniously sentenced to life confinement in Moscow’s Metropol hotel.

But for all that it was a prison, it was a luxurious one. The year is 1922, and behind it all, looms the haunting specter of a country that is at the fragile end of a brutal history; an ill-timed glance or a foot set in an unfortunate spot could bring down death and woe upon a person, in the form of a bullet to the head or an exile to Siberia.

But Alexander Ilyich Rostov finds a fire, a ferocious brightness in this new existence, set aflame by the keenness of how the world appears to a man at such circumstances. The Hotel Metropol is a world unto itself, and within its walls, “the world had come and gone”. Men and women were drawn to it from every far-flung crag of every country, spilling their stories while the count carefully gathers them up. Over the years, the count also forges a link between him and several residents of the hotel—the chefs, the doormen, the bartenders, the seamstresses—and creates a door that he can knock at and count on being opened at any time.

But soon the years begin to press into a moment more akin to a photo than a film, and the count begins to feel, for the first time, the true weight of his sentence. The fear that he wouldn’t ever leave the hotel, that he would stay and grow old and bent and be put in the ground there, became a monster that dogged his heel, and he walked on through his days steadfastly refusing to look its way in case it pounced—until it became impossible to ignore it.

The hotel is the count’s prison, and it is his sanctuary, but for how much longer can it be either?

To what end, he wondered, had the Divine created the stars in heaven to fill a man with feelings of inspiration one day and insignificance the next?

It’s not an easy task to make a story of imprisonment within an unvarying setting feel so hugely mesmerizing. Fortunately, Towles sets off all the fireworks he can with it, and as a result, the novel—like the count—thrives in captivity.

There’s a lot to swim in here—to fall into the drowning waves is inevitable. Towles spins his tale with the decisiveness of an explorer and the grace of a poet. I was pulled deeper into the current of his language, the words rippling past me like lyre notes, and my own heart seemed to be clipping along in staccato pleasure. Many times, I had to marshal my tired eyes in order to see the pages, driving myself past exhaustion to a surreal and pertinacious wakefulness.

Towles has certainly woven a sophisticated and powerful literary achievement. But what makes this novel so winning is not the generous prose, or the impeccable pace, or the characterization or even the gorgeously realized setting—as eruditely rendered as they are. It’s the author’s voice. The arched eyebrow, the conspiratorial wink, the sly, confiding tone. The piercing irony and the craftiness with which he always seems to know the right nerve to touch, at exactly the right moment, to wound or to outrage most.

Despite the seemingly unpropitious circumstances, this is not a dour book, by any stretch, and that’s one of the greatest joys of its intelligence—that it is pure, unfettered fun. The balance that the novel deftly strikes between academic playfulness and exquisite storytelling is absolutely masterful. A Gentleman in Moscow is both relentlessly intellectual and a page-turner in the true sense, and I genuinely felt rejuvenated by its presence while all the time trying not to think about how painful it would be when it all inevitably ends.

A Gentleman in Moscow is also as poignant as it is perplexing and profound. The book takes time to ruminate meaningfully on selfhood, friendship, parenthood and the devastating unattainability of modest hopes. It’s also boldly driven by the urge to make observations about other people while also offering them succor and guidance. People, after all, “deserve not only our consideration,” writes Towles, “but our reconsideration.” Furthermore, the novel is intricately carved with footnotes–the asides are not only effective in explaining unfamiliar references, but they also succeed in creating a poised and elegant punctuation throughout the book, reminding the reader of the author’s editorial presence even at their most enthralled.

It is undeniable that A Gentleman in Moscow lives and dies on its characters—so richly drawn and so idiosyncratically compelling are they—and the novel thrives with the people it focuses on, who, together, make something like the word family.

The details of the count’s life at the Hotel Metropol are vividly painted, and it’s a treat to simply spend time with him. There is a roaring vitality to his presence that cannot be contained, as though he breathed all the world’s air and only left enough for others by sheer benevolence. He is capable and steady and thoughtful, every movement considered, and although serving a lifelong sentence, the more favorable vestiges of the count’s aristocratic upbringing remained: Alexander Ilyich Rostov hasn’t lost any of his upright dignity, that earthbound grace, and that steady gaze with deep set humor. He took joy in savoring the simple pleasures of life—good wine, good company, and a good book—and that had the flavor of rebellion. He was a man ferociously committed to the business of “mastering his circumstances,” so he dropped his anchor, declared a truth, and found a harbor. And when he could no longer be important, he turned his clever mind to the task of becoming charming.

The count is utterly captivating in his interactions with other characters, though they all steal almost every scene they’re in: Nina, the precocious 9-year-old who holds a master key which allows her into every room; Emile, the grouchy cook with his caustic whit and cavernous gloom; and Andrey, the French maître d’ with a preternatural knowledge of the hotel’s inner workings and preternaturally agile hands. Their presence was like a warm stone the count cupped in his hands, and I relished the feeling that their solitudes had joined together. There is tragedy at the heart of this story, after all, but there is also unimaginable tenderness—and it’s what follows you off the page.

“These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

It comes as no surprise to me that this novel was a stokingly popular hit, and I’m so glad I read it. If you’re worried this may not be your thing—like I was—trust me: A Gentleman in Moscow is your thing, and you’re doubtless going to enjoy your time here.

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