Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles

Sunday, March 10, 2019
After I posted a few weeks ago about how long I've been wanting to read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, I finally managed to get my hands on a copy at the library. The fact that every copy has been checked out or on hold each time I've looked over the last year or so should have clued me in as to how fantastic this book is, and now that I've read it I can only confirm that indeed it is completely worth the wait.

A Gentleman in Moscow starts in 1922 as Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to permanent house arrest in the Metropol hotel for the crime of writing a poem. He must move from the grand suite had had been staying in to a small attic room, taking with him what few possessions he can. As the years go by we follow as the Count befriends Nina, a young girl also living in the hotel, learns all the back hallways and hotel secrets from her, watches as she grows up, starts school and falls in love. The Count also begins work as a waiter at the hotel restaurant and develops deep friendships with the maitre d', Andrey, the head chef, Emile, as well as other hotel staff like the seamstress, Mariana and Vasily the concierge. With other colorful characters popping in and out of the hotel over the years, like a beautiful movie star, an American ambassador, a high ranking government official and an old school friend, the Count builds himself a rich life all without setting foot outside. But when Nina returns and leaves her daughter to the Count's care, he must take on one challenge he's never faced -- parenting.

The story spans over 32 years and like we do in our own lives, we move from one little drama to the next, seemingly without a single overarching plot line until we can reach the very end, look back and pick out the themes and major turning points. Along the way I kept expecting something bad to happen, especially considering the political backdrop of the novel, but nothing really ever did. Instead Towles did a fantastic job adding little details throughout the story that while seemingly unimportant at the time do end up tying together in the end for a very satisfying conclusion. I was left feeling contented, proud of all the characters, and hopeful for their futures, but I wanted their stories to keep going. After following them for so long it's hard to leave them before it's all truly over.

The plot of this book is engaging, charming and heartwarming, but to me the best part of this book is the writing itself. I found myself lingering over sentences, marveling at the turn of phrase. The prose is a delight to read, slowly absorb, step back and admire and then re-read simply to go through it all again. It gives such a grandiose sense of the hotel, the Count himself and keeps the atmosphere of the novel as a whole floating in this charmed, almost artificially-preserved space full of old-world charm and manners while the world outside -- both of the hotel and the reader's world -- endures the pain and banality of everyday life. Even within this rose-tinted world, Towles is able to hit on little universal truths that are still relevant today and do so in a way that's at once beautiful to read, relatable and humorous. Here are a few quotes I loved:

"Surely, the span of time between the placing of an order and the arrival of appetizers is one of the most perilous in all human interaction. What young lovers have not found themselves at this juncture in a silence so sudden, so seemingly insurmountable that it threatens to cast doubt upon their chemistry as a couple What husband and wife have not found themselves suddenly unnerved by the fear that they might not ever have something urgent, impassioned, or surprising to say to each other again? So it is with good reason that most of us meet this dangerous interstice with a sense of foreboding."

"Furrowing his brow, the Count reviewed all of the conversations that he had ever had with his daughter in chronological order and could find no evidence of having told her the tale before."

"Like in a reel in which the dancers 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."

By this point it should go without saying that I loved this book and would highly recommend it to anyone. Next time however I'll be sure to brush up on my Russian 20th century politics a bit before reading so I can have an even greater context to the story. Having now loved two Amor Towles novels, I eagerly await his next book and will definitely be purchasing this book myself so I can reread it!

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