Sunday, December 11, 2016

Book Review: "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles

This really was a special book, one which at times felt almost magical.

Count Alexander Rostov was always a man who enjoyed the finer things in life. He was always nattily dressed, participating in intelligent conversation, enjoying fine food and drink, and the company of erudite and beautiful people. Rostov lived in grand fashion in Moscow's Hotel Metropol, a hotel just across the street from the Kremlin, and he thrived on being a part of the buzz that passed through its doors and around its bustling neighborhood.

In 1922, he was sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest at the Metropol, although the Bolshevik tribunal that issued the sentence wasn't simply content with allowing him to continue living in grandeur—they reduced his living quarters to one small room in the hotel belfry. But while no longer being able to step outside the hotel doors, and having to cram most of one's cherished possessions and family heirlooms into one tiny room might bring a lesser man to his knees, Rostov is (mostly) unbowed. He doesn't allow himself to miss a step of his usual routine, and it isn't long before he realizes how a life lived within one building can be just as full of excitement as one lived all over the world.

"...if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them."

While Russia and the world are experiencing events which cause major upheaval, Rostov doesn't miss out on it all. He can take the country's temperature, of sorts, by studying the behavior of the hotel guests, its managers, and its employees. While many may have written him off as a frivolous dandy, it's not long before many realize the Count's worth is far greater despite his diminished circumstances. He quickly is woven into the fabric of all of the hotel's goings-on, sometimes openly, sometimes secretly, and forms relationships that have ripples in the outside world, even as he realizes that the world he once knew and loved has changed.

"For the times do, in fact, change. They change relentlessly. Inevitably. Inventively. And as they change, they set into bright relief not only outmoded honorifics and hunting horns, but silver summoners and mother-of-pearl opera glasses and all manner of carefully crafted things that have outlived their usefulness."

Spanning several decades, A Gentleman in Moscow is rich with emotion, social commentary, humor, even Russian history. As he did in Rules Of Civility, which also was a fantastic book (see my review), Amor Towles both reveres and satirizes the world in which this book takes place, but the love he has for his characters is a beacon above it all.

While at times the book got a little too detailed with the workings of Russian government, poetry, and Bolshevik history, it always quickly got itself back on track and brought me back into the book's heart. These characters were so special, so fascinating, and Towles' storytelling was so vivid, I almost could see the scenes playing out in front of my eyes as I read them. And honestly, Count Rostov is a character worthy of being put up on a pedestal like other unforgettable ones.

I was a little late to the party on reading this, but I'm so glad I did, and I'm glad it lived up to the praise so many others have bestowed upon it. If you like novels with social commentary, satire, history, and a huge dollop of heart, pick up A Gentleman in Moscow. You'll marvel at it, and even want more.

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