Since this is the first book review for my blog, I’m going to describe what kind of reviews I plan to write. First, I promise to avoid as many spoilers as I can—I’m not a book critic and the purpose of my reviews is to give potential readers a better understanding of what they might be getting into, not to dissect the stories for learning purposes. Perhaps I’ll save that sort of analysis for a later time. Second, I’m dividing the review into sections to make it easier to read and to make it easier to find the information that’s most pertinent to you. And third, I aim to keep the tone of my reviews positive, even if I review books that I disliked. So, with that out of the way, let’s get started!
Title: A Gentleman in Moscow
Author: Amor Towles
Genre(s): historical fiction, literary fiction, Russian fiction
Length: 480 pages
Published: September 6, 2016
“He can’t leave. You won’t want to.”
These are the opening words of the cover-flap synopsis of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. The synopsis, along with the beautiful cover art, was enough to entice me to give this book a try and put that claim to the test.
Spoiler: it’s very true.
A Gentleman in Moscow is set in 1922 in Moscow, Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution. The protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, is sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol Hotel because he “has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class” (p. 5). In other words, not even the rebellious poem he wrote before the Revolution can cover up his aristocratic blood. He’s moved from his posh hotel room to a cramped little alcove in the attic, his plethora of possessions are whittled down to only what will fit in the room, and then is left to settle into a life far, far away from any area of influence. Once the initial thrill wears off and monotony sets in, can the Count find meaning in a world where he no longer has a place? That question is explored and answered throughout the next thirty years of the Count’s life at the Metropol.
I was skeptical at first about Towles’ writing style—not so much because I found it hard to read, but that it’s hard to settle into new writing styles when I’m used to novels written in the 19th century. However, the style captivated me for two reasons. First, the author opens the novel not just with one unique format, but two: a poem penned by the protagonist, then the court report from the Count’s trial. The rest of formatting is also unconventional and very cool, such as:
The book is divided into five “books” along with an afterword
Each chapter name begins with the letter “A” (I’m amazed that Towles was able to come up with so many clever titles)
Footnotes are scattered throughout the book, where events are better explained or attention to drawn to small details
Second, the 3rd person point-of-view is far more personal and boisterous than I expected. As soon as I settled into the flow of sentences, I felt as if it were the Count talking to me, not the author describing events and feelings. Here’s an example from page 109 of the book:
“At five o’clock on the twenty-first of June, the Count stood before his closet with his hand on his plain gray blazer and hesitated. In a few minutes, he would be on his way to the barbershop for his weekly visit, and then to the Shalyapin to meet Mishka, who would probably be wearing the same brown jacket he’d worn since 1913. As such, the gray blazer seemed a perfectly suitable choice of attire. That is, until one considered that it was an anniversary of sorts—for it had been one year to the day since the Count had last set foot outside of the Metropol Hotel.”
Doesn’t that paragraph sing? To me it sounds as if someone is sitting across from you, sipping coffee and telling you a story. The voice of the prose made even the most mundane scenario from the Count’s life vibrant and enjoyable. But, if you’re going to dislike something about the prose, it’s going to be that very same personality. The author reuses similar phrasing over and over again. For instance, “that is to say” pops up as a way to begin a sentence more than a handful of times. But I found the repetition more endearing the more I read because, as I mentioned earlier, it sounded like an old friend who has a catchphrase or two. I don’t think it overpowers the energy and skill of the prose.
The inside of the book cover describes the characters of this novel as a “glittering cast,” and although I hate gaudy descriptions, I yet again agree with the synopsis. The characters are one of the best parts of the story. Reading this novel felt less like reading and more like watching a movie where everyone, even the lady dusting counters in the background, is played by award-winning actors.
The protagonist, who’s almost always called the Count, is more than the typical charismatic aristocrat in every 1920s period drama (although he’s about as charismatic as you can find). The reader gets to watch him grow over the course of three decades, test his perceptions of the world, face challenges he never anticipated, find new adventures, and struggle with the natural progression of age. He is faced with physical limitations, restlessness, political danger, and most of all, the lingering question of purpose. He is a friend to many but known closely by few, which puts him in the perfect position to meet the new guests and employees of the hotel as well as butt heads with them. His charm and confidence in his wide array of knowledge gets time to shine and time to be put in its place. What I found most amusing about his characterization was how the Count’s perception of himself is contrasted with how he truly is, or how others perceive him—he thinks himself an adventurer, at ease with people, charming, and always ready to think of his feet, yet he still clings to his traditions and has a hard time admitting that he could become set in his ways. It was hard for me to not be fond of him even when I didn’t agree with his morals and choices.
The same is true about the side characters. None of them are known as intimately as the Count but are just as bright and alive on the page. Unlikely relationships and friendships abound, reinforced by the centralized setting and the wide variety of the Metropol guest list. By the end of the novel I met a temperamental head chef (Emile), a calm and skilled restaurant manager (Andrey), an inquisitive daughter of a Ukrainian bureaucrat (Nina), a cunning actress (Anna), an American diplomat (Richard), a reserved orphan girl (Sofia), an anal-retentive hotel manager (the Bishop), a kind and motherly seamstress (Marina), a revolutionary poet and childhood friend (Mishka)—and that’s just the beginning. It seems like a lot, but Towles manages to make each of them distinctive and memorable despite being one in a crowd.
However, the downside of such a large cast is that it was sometimes unclear about which characters needed to be remembered. All of the Russian names of the hotel staff were hard to keep track of at the beginning, and some characters who seem important turn out not to be by the end. But even so, I enjoyed the variety of the cast and how the author presented them as people instead of vessels for ideologies. They all come from different walks of life and philosophies, and all of their perspectives, motivations, and experiences seem accurate for that era in history. I’m no Russian history buff, so I’m not certain how accurate it truly is, but I appreciated being able to immerse myself into that time period, draw my own conclusions, and not be told who to agree with. The author also does a good job of creating bright characters and showing the beauty of life while contrasting it with the horrors that Russians endured during that period of history. Neither mood is overbearing, and that balanced approach helped me become attached to Count Rostov and his makeshift hotel family. Their strong characterizations power the conflict of the novel.
This story is, naturally, more character-driven than plot-driven—which means I have less to say in this section than the previous one. Nevertheless, the plot is strong, keeps a good pace, and doesn’t feel haphazard or directionless like other character-driven novels. Plot twists are well done when they occur, pacing is skillful (I could hardly put the book down), and tension builds in all the right places, especially at the end. The novel concludes without everything being wrapped up neatly like most literary novels, but unlike other stories in this genre it ends on a hopeful note.
Towles’ style naturally lends to a setting that’s tangible to the reader. The level of detail is reminiscence of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, in that it makes history vivid and personal instead of distant and textbook-ish. Having the novel set in one location for (nearly) the entirety of the story not only creates interesting relationships but also a sense of normalcy for the reader and grounds the otherwise overwhelming cast of characters. The Metropol becomes home just as it does for the Count. Plus, the reader gets to enjoy small history and cultural lessons while they’re following the characters around in their daily lives—by the end I had learned quite a lot about how to run a hotel and the Russian government. The level of detail that goes into painting the setting may be agitating and feel unnecessary for some; but in my opinion, the author doesn’t get too far into setting the scene that he neglects the characterization, plot, or purpose of why the scene is there. In fact, the important details throughout the story are far more impressive than they are distracting—the amount of research that Towles conducted before writing this novel is apparent and pays off in the end.
I was very impressed with the low level of sexual and language content in this novel—very few parts of the story felt like they didn’t belong. Sexual content is there, clearly, as the Count has an on-again/off-again relationship with one of the female characters, but the detail is limited, mostly left to the imagination, or easy to skip if you don’t want to bother with anything close to scandalous. Language is also there, but doesn’t distract from the story. Many characters drink alcohol on a regular basis and characters get drunk multiple times. Violence is also dotted throughout the novel, but isn’t heavy and not described in great detail. It exists more because the historical context is naturally very heavy and violent instead of it being used as a story device—most likely because the subject and tone of the novel keeps it from becoming overwhelming. Also, there is mention of suicide and a planned suicide, but the character doesn’t go through with it in the end.
No book is perfect. Looking back on A Gentleman in Moscow, there are characters that I lost track of and still don’t understand their importance, and foreshadowing that didn’t quite add up. The prose style and added footnotes will not be something that everyone likes. I found the Count and the rest of the cast of characters endearing, but can see how others may find those same quirks and flaws agitating. Some clichés, especially with the Count’s personality and some later plot events, do pop up. And if literary fiction isn’t your cup of tea, you may not enjoy the ending since it’s decidedly open. However, I immensely enjoyed this book and finished it in a matter of two days despite having a packed schedule. I didn’t want to leave the characters or the Metropol behind, but they left me with a glimmer of hope in my mind and the feeling that I had experienced a rich and whirlwind lifetime in the span of a few hours. I’m glad that I gave a modern novel a try, because otherwise I wouldn’t have found this gem.
I easily give A Gentleman in Moscow 5 stars.