Ok, my absolute favorite book I read this past year was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I discovered it before it really hit through the Book of the Month Club (great idea, not really my thing, oddly) on a special deal for first time customers. One of my main issues with BoMC is that few of the monthly options pique my interest enough to make the financial commitment, but A Gentleman in Moscow did, and boy, am I glad I went for it!
The novel tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov, a former Russian aristocrat deemed unrepentant by the Bolsheviks and saved from the Gulag only by a pro-proletariat poem he wrote in his youth, is sentenced to house arrest at his beloved Metrolpol hotel, a grand imperial-style hotel across from the Kremlin in 1922. A man of leisure, he is unconcerned by his imprisonment until he is evicted from his sumptuous rooms and escorted to a small room in the attic–former servants quarters now used as storage. As Rostov’s geographic world contracts, his emotional world expands, and we have the joy and honor of experiencing subsequent decades of Russian history through the charming, witty, and erudite eyes of the most congenial of men and the windows of his elegant hotel.
I cannot even begin to tell you how much I loved this book! I suspected it might be good because Towles’ first novel, Rules of Civility seems to be everyone’s favorite book club book they ever read. Certainly that was the case of my mom, cousin, etc. I hadn’t yet gotten around to reading Rules of Civility when my copy of Gentleman arrived in the mail, so though I had high expectations, I didn’t really know what those expectations should look like.
Well, it was a dazzling read. From the beginning Rostov, who should be mildly off-putting due to his presumptuousness and absurdness, is completely charming, the kind of man who is genuinely kind and curious behind his aristocratic veneer. And behind that veneer is also a man who is fiercely loyal to his grandmother, sister, and best friend; well-educated and well-mannered yet more pragmatic than one might think; equal parts adaptable and rigid as appropriate; a problem solver rather than a wallower; and above all one who values love, friends, and human relationships. The other characters are equally fully drawn, from the little girl who spies on Bolshevik dinners from the ballroom balcony and the sinister waiter who slithers up the ranks without knowing the difference between a Rioja and a Beaujolais to Rostov’s new compatriots of the maitre’d and the head chef and the hotel seamstress. Each one has his or her own fully-formed backstory, goals, fears, and loves, all teased out and revealed in asides and conversations over the course of the novel. We fall in love with them as completely as Rostov does.
For me, one of the most extraordinary parts of the novel is Towles’ beautiful prose, particularly in his control of tone and atmosphere. Honestly, the first part of the novel felt a bit slow to me until I realized that Towles was creating for us the readers the same feeling of constriction and claustrophobia that Rostov felt as his life was pulled out from under him. As Rostov evolves, his world, and so the feel of the novel, grows, too, with his new (or perhaps first would be more accurate) job as waiter in the hotel restaurant, his re-examined and re-negotiated relationships with hotel staff-turned-colleagues and friends, his adventures with the mischievous girl, and his secret room expansion up in his attic home. Rostov’s adaptation to and growing satisfaction with his new life is captured in the tone, the pace, and the ultimate expansiveness story as a whole, and we feel even more than explicitly read his personal journey. It’s simple and breathtaking prose.
A review on NPR describe this novel as light, airy, charming, Eloise at the Plaza if Eloise were set in Stalinist Russia, NKVD and all. And yes, Rostov is breezy and his story is episodic and much time is spent on he and his friends collecting ingredients to create the perfect bouillabaisse, unheard of in a time of deprivation. But I feel that misses the heart of the story, which is the capacity of the human heart to grow, adapt, and change to meet the needs of its person and those important to him or her. This is not a flashy story of self-realization and major growth, the kind of story that would be turned into a huge Hollywood movie with Will Smith or Robert Downey Jr. or Bradley Cooper giving a major public declaration of change to get back the girl/his family/his job/whatever while standing in the middle of a street backed by sweeping strings and sparkling percussion. This is a quiet story of a man who had and lost it all…well, lost a lot…and finds new purpose, new family, new reasons to love in the simplest, most unexpected places. This is a story of being reminded why life is worth living, and that should not be dismissed, no matter how much shimmer it’s hiding behind.
This is the book I want everyone to read. I know that I am not adequately capturing my feelings for it, and I fully recognize you may not like it as much as I did, but I strongly feel you’ll be doing yourself a disservice not to read it. Even if you don’t like the story, Towles is a master writer, crafting some of the most evocative and beautiful language of anyone writing today. So take a weekend and travel through Russia’s history with Count Rostov. It will be an utterly delightful journey.