Saturday, September 3, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I just finished a beautiful book, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. This is even better than Rules of Civility, Towles’ first well-received novel.

The gentleman is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who found himself in Moscow, living in the famed luxury hotel, The Metropol, just after the revolution. As the novel opens, in 1922, Alexander is called before "The Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs." He is tried and found guilty of being an aristocrat, a traitor to the revolutionary ideals. Most of Russia’s aristocrats either died during the revolution, were executed afterward, were banished to Siberia, or are living as unobtrusively as possible so as not to attract the attention of the Party. Alexander, at one time a revered poet, is too well known to fade away. Fortunately for the count, his poetry was seen as inspirational to the budding revolutionary movement. Therefore, his judges don’t sentence him to death or exile. Instead, they sentence him to house arrest.

Alexander lives in a suite of rooms at the Metropol. Although its glory fades somewhat due to the wars, it’s still a pretty posh place. As part of his punishment, he is removed from his suite and sent to the hotel attic to live in a single tiny room–he has to climb a few flights of stairs to reach it. He can only take a few of his possessions. The rest are confiscated by "the people." If he leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight.

Accepting his fate, he commences his new life. The beauty of the book is what he makes of it.

I found this book engrossing. Still, when I tried telling my husband how wonderful it was, I couldn’t convey how it could be so interesting given the limited geography. This is a fascinating time in Russian history, but we learn about it from the perspective of a man in Moscow who must experience it all secondhand. The count spends his days performing rather routine functions. He passes his time wandering about the hotel, eating splendid meals, visiting his barber weekly, meeting various guests, and talking with his friends: the concierge, the head chef, the hotel seamstress. He meets a young girl, a guest at the hotel, whose curiosity and intelligence inspire him to broaden his own horizons by looking around. He even conducts a love affair with an unlikely guest.

Naturally, some of his time is spent reminiscing, either aloud to friends or alone. His past life was glamorous in some ways, but he doesn’t wallow in self pity at being denied the life he expected to live. Alexander makes the best of what he’s given.

Towles’ writing is so superb and the protagonist is so engaging that it all works.

Alexander is a hero to truly admire. He’s kind, friendly, a master of self-control, and able throughout to maintain the well-bred manners of a perfect gentleman. At each setback, he considers the viewpoint of his adversaries, and he adapts. At one point, a well-connected member of the Party who has asked a favor of Alexander compliments him on how well he has reconciled himself to his situation. Alexander responds that being resigned is not the same as being reconciled, giving the reader a deeper insight into his internal struggles. Yet what makes Alexander a truly empathetic hero is that he recognizes how fortunate he actually is. It’s a delight to spend time with a character so steady and so charming. His dry wit lights up the pages, and his ability to see the humor in dark situations clues the reader in to how this imprisoned count is able to enjoy life in spite of its trials.

This book is highly recommended.