Thursday, June 1, 2017

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

If I told you a book was about a man sentenced to more than thirty years of house arrest in a hotel in Moscow, would you ever imagine that it could hold your attention for 462 pages?  I wasn't sure it would hold my attention that long either.  But this is exactly what Amor Towles has accomplished with his beautifully written, surprisingly engaging, and historically expansive novel, A Gentleman in Moscow.

Count Alexander Rostov is a gentleman, a bona fide aristocrat, and poet newly returned from exile when he is called into a Moscow court in 1922. Spared a death sentence, he is instead declared a "former person" and sentenced to house arrest in the grand Hotel Metropol just around the corner from the Kremlin, the hotel in which he's been living. Stepping a toe outside the hotel will violate his sentence and he will be summarily shot. So begins the Count's long incarceration inside the mostly unchanging world of this premier luxury hotel, a place that weathers all of the changes of the outside world by maintaining its status as the preferred place for those in power to congregate and for foreign diplomats and press to experience a Soviet life no longer truly available outside of its confines. And while many people would consider it a terrible thing to be confined to the hotel, the Count accepts his sentence with amazing equanimity. In fact, he goes on to build a full and surprisingly busy life. He meets and befriends a whole cast of people, from the high party official in the KGB to the young daughter of a guest to the hotel's seamstress and chef and everyone in between. The Count is proper, diplomatic, and respected and he is respectful of all those he comes in contact with, with one exception which provides a big piece of the narrative tension of the novel. From his vantage point in the hotel, he has a side view seat (rather than front row) to the political happenings going on outside its four walls. Ironically, he faces less hardship than almost anyone else in his orbit because of his situation. And he is lucky enough to find love and friendship and loyalty all in his genteel imprisonment although he also has to contend with the sadness of never being able to leave the hotel, that of the need, for good or ill, to wait for people to come to him and the idea that they could disappear out of his life without a trace (although this latter was no less true of the rest of the country as well).

The novel is very much character driven, but what a delightful character he is. Even in his diminished surroundings, he maintains an air of curiousity and interest in the goings on of others. He finds a way to safely thumb his nose at any perceived deprivations and to mock the excesses of the Bolsheviks, even as he mourns the impact on those for whom he cares deeply. The story is deceptive in that it is about more than one man, offering a distilled look at Russian and Soviet history from the Revolution to the 1950s. The pacing of the novel is slow but consistent and the reader is happy to luxuriate in the careful and sometimes clever turns of phrase of which Towles makes great use. The language is thoughtful and perfectly chosen. There are charming bits of fluff (exploring the hidden parts of the hotel is just one example) interspersed into the story to keep it light and touching. The over all feel is one of time forgotten, elegant and enchanting. Although not as expansive in place as most classic Russian novels, the book is a beautifully crafted homage of sorts with its large cast of characters, the proximity of the political and the personal, the abiding love for country, and the constant, immutable sense of honor in the main character. If you choose to sink into the Count's world, it will be time well spent.

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