Book Review

A Gentleman In Moscow

I had seen a lot of buzzing about A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles on social media, and it sparked my curiosity. When I looked up the description and discovered that it is set in post-revolution Russia, I absolutely knew that I had to get my hands on this book. It was definitely worth the read.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was the story of Count Alexander Rostov, who was deemed to be an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922. At 30 years old, he was given a rather lenient sentence of house arrest at the Metropol hotel, a lavish hotel in Moscow, right across from the Kremlin. Rostov, a well educated, smart, and witty gentleman, had been relegated to an attic bedroom from his a suite that he had become accustomed to. As the turbulent changes sweeping Russia unfold right outside, he adjusts to his own changes inside the hotel. But instead of seeing his world shrink, he begins to see that his circumstances have expanded. Because within the hotel are many new people to meet and things to be seen over the course of his time there. Eventually, fate placed the life of a young girl into his hands and it became his responsibility to protect her. In order to ensure that she got the opportunity to live the life she deserves, he must use all of the skills at his disposal.

The descriptions used are beautiful, humorous, and endearing. The narrator’s images of staff made them seem so real it is as if we became familiar with them as well – the seamstress with the lazy eye, the attentive maître d’, the irascible chef, the barber with whom the Count had his weekly appointment, and the incompetent waiter who was reminiscent of both a chess piece and a member of the clergy:

“Tall and thin, with a narrow head and superior demeanor, he looked rather like a bishop that had been plucked from a chessboard.”

The narrator made great use of humor throughout the book and I often found myself chuckling out loud while reading:

“…it is our friends who should overestimate our capacities…. Why, they should practically imagine us leaping through a window in the nick of time with the works of Shakespeare in one hand and a pistol in the other!”

There has generally been a tendency towards dramatic flair in Russian literature, and this book was full of that as well:

“And music? There would be songs that emptied your glass and called you to your feet. Songs that led you to leap and alight in a manner that belied your age. Songs that made you reel and spin until you lost your bearings not only between the parlor and the salon, but between heaven and earth.”

There was plenty of marvelous alliteration in the book, both in chapter titles and sporadically in the text itself, without ever seeming contrived:

“In a single week, there might be committees, caucuses, colloquiums, congresses, and conventions, variously coming together to establish codes, set courses of action, levy complaints, and generally clamor about the world’s oldest problems in its newest nomenclature.”

The book took place over a span of 32 years. In this time, the Count went from being 30 to his early 60s. Initially, he took his sentence in stride. But soon a sense of claustrophobia starts to creep in:

“If he continued along this course, it would not take long for the ceiling to edge downward, the walls to edge inward, and the floor to edge upward, until the entire hotel had been collapsed into the size of a biscuit tin.”

Even so, he wasn’t condescending to anyone, and remained genial to everyone he came in contact with. Even when a mostly unsupervised 9 year-old girl approached him, he was friendly and didn’t behave arrogantly. In fact, he learned from her and overcame his feelings of being closed in through his association with Nina:

“Having lived at the Metropol for four years, the Count considered himself something of an expert on the hotel. He knew its staff by name, its services by experience, and the decorative styles of its suites by heart. But once Nina had taken him in hand, he realized what a novice he had been.”

“In the time that Nina had been in the hotel, the walls had not grown inward, they had grown outward, expanding in scope and intricacy.”

You never quite knew what to expect from the Count and he frequently got into some mischief, even as he aged. He did get older and wiser throughout the book, and I saw him mature and change as the decades passed, although he never lost his willingness to get into some shenanigans.

Something I found amusing was that towards the end of the book, some of the older staff members retired and were replaced by newer, more efficient staff (as per Communist expectations). Rather than taking the time to schmooze they were all about business and getting the job done quickly, so the Count didn’t bother to take the time to get to know them, referring to one as “Boris Something-or-other-ovich.” Maybe when an aging person is under house arrest in a hotel, it’s their way of saying “get off my lawn,” when they don’t have a lawn, and don’t own property in true Communist fashion. Maybe not, but that was my first thought.

Another thing that I absolutely loved was the tendency of one character, when watching Humphrey Bogart movies in English, to Russian-ize words. “San Francisco” became “San Franchesko,” and “Sam Spade” turned into “Comrade Spadsky.” Now, I’m no expert on Russia, but my father was from Poland and spoke with a heavy accent. While I often tuned it out since I had heard it my whole life, he had a strange way of turning American words into Polish words all the time. It always made me so much more aware of his accent, and would often make me laugh about the way that he would turn simple words (like spatula, for example) into exotic foreign terms. This book brought that nostalgia back for me, and made me think of that. It also made the characters seem even more realistic for me.

The Metropol hotel became like a story version of a Russian nesting doll in itself, with a colorful cast of characters that became the whole world for the Count, often so close that they were like family to him. The way they interacted with each other made it clear that they viewed the Count as family as well.

While the Count is the principal character that is focused on, many of the other characters are also well developed and explored more deeply. The narrator takes on an omnipresent tone, and has the liberty to take us into the lives of other characters, allowing us various perspectives both inside and outside of the Metropol.

It took me some time to get into the book initially. It started off slow but I soon became engrossed in the story. The Count’s charm and wit was evident early on, and he was a character that I couldn’t help but love. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word. This book evoked many powerful emotions in me as I read through the retelling of the Count’s life, from joy and humor to grief. I felt that in many ways, he was fortunate to be in the circumstances that he was in, especially since the times he lived through were not kind to aristocrats. This was an outstanding book and I’d highly recommend it.

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