It’s 1922, and Count Alexander Rostov has just been sentenced to spend the remainder of his life under house arrest, confined to the Hotel Metropol across the street from the Kremlin. If he steps foot outside the doors of the hotel, he will be executed. He’s an unrepentant aristocrat, a Former Person, and in A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles confines the reader right there with him.
“After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.”
The book follows the Count and his interactions with the varied and colourful cast of characters in the grand hotel. We experience thirty years of history precisely the way Count Rostov does—from the limited view behind the walls of the Metropol. The momentous events in Russia and on the world stage at the time are felt in ripples, glimpsed only through what staff and visitors to the hotel reveal. He discovers the hotel’s secrets through the eyes of a young girl, raises a daughter, explores what it means to have true purpose, makes unexpected friends, and touches the lives of so many.
“Like in a reel in which the dances form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count’s would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore.”
Towles’ language is beautiful, as rich and enchanting as the Metropol itself in its heyday. The Count often waxes philosophical while simultaneously bringing humour and levity to a solemn period in history. He rarely says things simply. If you are someone who enjoys erudite words and elegant prose, a reader who savours a book, unrushed, this is a novel for you.
“Alexander Rostov was neither scientist nor sage; but at the age of sixty-four he was wise enough to know that life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions. Our faculties wax and wane, our experiences accumulate and our opinions evolve—if not glacially, then at least gradually. Such that the events of an average day are as likely to transform who we are as a pinch of pepper is to transform a stew.”
The novel reminded me of the adventure novels I was so fond of as a child, with the Count’s exploits not being hindered by the fact that he is bound by the four walls of the hotel. This is a type of story I have always loved, finding adventure in the mundane. Count Rostov is a man who knows how to savour small delights, who values details and the sharing of particular pleasures. An absolute highlight of the novel is the “Night of the Bouillabaisse,” a tale I will leave you to discover in your own reading.
“For his part, the Count had opted for the life of the purposefully unrushed. Not only was he disinclined to race toward some appointed hour—disdaining even to wear a watch—he took the greatest satisfaction when assuring a friend that a worldly matter could wait in favor of a leisurely lunch or stroll along the embankment. After all, did not wine improve with age? Was it not the passage of years that gave a piece of furniture its delightful patina? When all was said and done, the endeavours that most modern men saw as urgent (such as appointments with bankers and the catching of trains) probably could have waited, while those they deemed frivolous (such as cups of tea and friendly chats) had deserved their immediate attention.”
A Gentleman in Moscow is historical fiction, a masterpiece of nostalgia that has much to teach even as it entertains. I never wanted this book to end, which is perhaps why, as I approached its final pages, I read slower and slower, eventually putting it down for weeks at a time before I finally devoured the ending all at once. I grew to love the vivid characters and the subtle complexity of their interactions and was sorry when my time with them was done.
“If one has been absent for decades from a place that one once held dear, the wise would generally counsel that one should never return there again . . . Perhaps for those returning after a long absence, the combination of heartfelt sentiments and the ruthless influence of time can only spawn disappointments.”
I will confess, though, that even more than the thrilling story of this novel, I fell in love with Amor Towles’ style of writing. I saw in his words a similarity to my own. Long sentences, an affinity for too many commas, and an overriding delight in lyrical descriptions of people and places—things that often are my downfall as I struggle to be more direct and concise—fill the pages of this novel artfully. Fair warning to the reader: This book is for a lover of words.
“Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence—one that was on intimate terms with a comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.”