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A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel Hardcover – September 6, 2016
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A Gentleman in Moscow is the 30-year saga of the Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is placed under house arrest inside the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922 when the Bolsheviks spare him from death or Siberia because of his 1913 revolutionary poem written in university. The relationships he forms with staff and guests, his handling of twists of fate, his moral rectitude and his perseverance to go on in the face of his lifelong imprisonment for being a Former Person make for a compelling tale, told beautifully by Towles. It is not overwritten, and provides just enough historical contexts without being burdensome. And Towles doesn’t overdo the use of the Russian diminutive, which I’ve found in Russian classics to be crazy making and require a scorecard. Towles gives the reader just enough background of his characters. We know them but still wonder; he’s left room for the reader. The story unfolds so wonderfully that I don’t want to give away more of the plot.
I literally sat and stared into space for an hour after I finished A Gentleman In Moscow, contemplating it and wishing it hadn’t ended.
I may just have to re-read it.
REVIEW: Book hangover. Book hangover for days. I had such an emotionally fulfilled feeling at the end of this novel that when I finished the last page, I closed the book, sat back, sighed deeply, and thought, "well, what now? where do I go from here? how do I move on?"...book hangover.
It seems convoluted to start a review with the ending of a book, but this novel is actually a rather long tale, spanning 30+ years, so before I get into the journey, allow me this one break with decorum. The ending. Oh, this ending. Whenever anyone asks me which book ending I love the most, I will usually answer Water for Elephants, because it has one of the most satisfying endings I have ever read. And until now no other novel has come close to changing my answer. But A Gentleman in Moscow, if not completely upsetting Sara Gruen's work, at least pulls level with it, because it is such a satisfying end to this novel, and I'll say no more than that for fear of ruining the experience for anyone else.
Who hasn't had the thought, at some point, that it would be nice to live in a hotel? Perhaps we don't imagine that it will be under house arrest and 1922 in Moscow, but it's a luxurious idea to entertain. It feels like such a universal fantasy that, despite the fact that we are not (probably) an aristocrat, a connoisseur of multiple tastes, exceedingly cultured, and currently exiled within our own country, we somehow connect with Count Rostov immediately. Here is a man from a by-gone era and yet he wins us over completely with his wit and charm from the very first page.
This is all due completely to the beautiful writing of the author, of course. Amor Towles caught my attention with his first book Rules of Civility (which I also highly recommend), a book that is completely opposite to this one in nearly every way, except the writing. Towles writes with such sophistication and beauty in every carefully chosen word that it manages to feel effortless. It's captivating.
A Gentleman in Moscow is rich with detail. The first half of the book creates a thorough and gorgeous visual of the hotel and it's occupants. While it may seem a bit exhaustive, it's entirely necessary. The reader is being immersed so fully into this setting that we feel just as the Count feels in his many years in the Metropol. And nothing is without purpose. Each moment and person is leading somewhere and the second half of the book is a revelation of a life well lived.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the humor and philosophical wisdom running throughout this novel. At times it's witty and funny in that perfectly refined way, and in the next moment it's incredibly astute and insightful. I could quote this book for days. As I was reading I would reach for my phone to snap a picture of passage that I didn't want to forget. This happened often. As intelligent as it is entertaining, this book has it all.
I could ramble on about the the delightful and stunning setting of this book as well as the cast of characters that weave in and out and in again, but it might actually be overkill. By this point I'm sure you know that I recommend this book for multiple reasons. So it seems only right that you should discover the hotel and the people in it for yourself without me spoiling a thing.
A Gentleman in Moscow is wonderful from beginning to end. It's the type of book that I know I will reread because I'm not ready to let it go. I don't want to say goodbye to the world and people that Towles has created, so I won't. I'll revisit often and always with a perfectly paired glass of wine in my hand, as Count Rostov would approve.
In 1922, the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat For Internal Affairs sentences Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov to spend the rest of his life inside the Hotel Metropol for writing the poem “Where Is It Now?”, which brashly asked the question, “where is our purpose now?” In imposing the sentence, the prosecutor pronounced that the Count “has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class – and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. On that basis, our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall.” Instead, the Count is sentenced to a lifetime in the Hotel Metropol, where he has previously resided in luxurious accommodations. Of course, when he is returned to the Hotel, he is removed from his luxurious accommodations and moved to a single attic room.
In trying to adjust to his new circumstances, the Count tells himself that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them” and that “imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness.” And so the Count adjusts to the 30 or more years that he ultimately spends in the Hotel. Of course there are some challenges along the way.
The Hotel Metropol is a grand hotel. It has a cocktail bar, the Shalyapin, one of the finest restaurants in Moscow, the Boyarsky (its chef is described as 5 foot five and 200 pounds), a more casual restaurant, the Piazza, a barbershop, a flower shop, a full time seamstress and a variety of meeting rooms and ballrooms. There is a lot of life in all of these places.
The Count befriends a nine-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova, who is temporarily living in the hotel with her father and who introduces the Count to all of the secrets the Hotel has to offer. In return, the Count shares with Nina his wisdom and a lifetime friendship begins. This friendship enriches the Count’s life in ways that I will leave for you to discover when you read this delightful novel.
In the meantime, the Count’s college friend Mischka shows up at the Hotel while he is visiting Moscow to help plan the inaugural Congress of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. The arrival of Mischka causes the Count to look back at his life in simpler days and gives us some history and context for the changes in the country described throughout the course of the novel. Mischka shows up periodically throughout the story, always reflecting the changing political environment.
While living at the Metropol, the Count meets people from all over the world, begins a love affair with a famous actress, spends many years tutoring a former red Army Colonel about the west, works as the head waiter at the Boyarsky and makes friends and enemies with the various people who lead their lives either in or through the Metropol.
Throughout the book we learn a lot about the changes in Russian politics, sometimes through historical detail and sometimes through plot. My favorite example involves wine and the Boyarsky. The Count, a wine and food connoisseur, dines at the Boyarsky most evenings and is very selective about his wine. One evening in 1924, at the Boyarsky, the Count orders a bottle of Barolo and is told his choices are a red or a white. Asking for the restaurant manager, the Count is taken to the Hotel’s wine cellar, housing more than 100,000 bottles. “And every one of them without a label.” The explanation? “A complaint was filed with Comrade Teodorov, the Commissioner of Food, claiming that the existence of our wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution. That it is a monument to the privilege of the nobility, the effeteness of the intelligentsia, and the predatory pricing of speculators.” In 1930, “[T]hanks to a member of the Central Committee, who had tried unsuccessfully to order a bottle of Bordeaux for the new French ambassador, wines with labels could once again be found in the Metropol’s cellar.”
A lot of life and a lot of history takes place in this story, all told with humor, compassion and thoughtfulness. I leave it to you to discover. I finished the book wishing I knew more about Russian history and culture. If you like this post and would like to read more, visit FromBriefsToBooks.com.