I haven’t done a book review in awhile even though I’ve been reading regularly. This is Amor Towles’ second book and the first of his that I’ve had the pleasure to read.
‘On 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.
Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. But instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.
Can a life without luxury be the richest of all?’
I picked this book up months ago during what now seems to be rare prolonged moments of browsing in bookshops. Purposely steering clear of the Fantasy/Sci-Fi section, I ended up choosing, if I remember correctly, 3 books. After all this time, I can’t remember exactly why I picked this particular book up because it wasn’t the cover that got my attention. I only decided to buy it after reading the description on the back.
At the age of 33, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to spend the rest of his days in the elegant Hotel Metropol. Not a bad way to live, you might think, surrounded by luxury. Except, instead of his familiar suite, his new abode is a now tiny room in the attic. Not so good.
The book covers Russia’s turbulent years from the 1920s to the 1950s. But we only catch glimpses of that turbulence because we’re in the hotel with the Count. We see the changes through his eyes and his view is limited because he doesn’t get to experience any of it first-hand. And what he does experience is coloured by his aristocratic upbringing.
People have criticised the book for its almost flippant handling of the horrors Russia went through in those years. That it makes light of the suffering and constant fear that had become part of daily life. I understand where they’re coming from.
Personally, I don’t think that’s the point of this story. This is about one man’s life and the effect of having that life limited to the confines of one space. It’s like a prison story, but here, we get to meet many diverse characters – those who work in the hotel and those who stay at the hotel. The effect they have on Alexander and he on them. Maybe it could have been set in a different time instead of having privilege existing alongside the Stalinist years, but I doubt the story would have worked so well. The great thing about books, like anything, we’re all entitled to our own opinions and that’s what adds to the interest.
Anyway, back to my review. I love the character of Alexander Rostov. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I find his old-school manners very attractive. He seems to be a man who’s had every privilege in life and who’s lived a grand life. Yet, he has experienced sadness, heartbreak and regret. When he speaks of that time, he does so quietly, with dignity.
On the first night of his imprisonment, he remembers the words of his guardian – “… adversity presents itself in many forms; and that if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” And so, he endeavours to master the new circumstance he finds himself in.
Not that it’s easy. The thought of living in a luxury hotel might sound appealing, but when you’re not allowed to set foot out of it, it doesn’t take long for the days to blend into one. And you find yourself literally counting the seconds… “Until, suddenly, that long-strided watchman of the minutes caught up with his bowlegged brother at the top of the dial. As the two embraced, the springs within the clock’s casing loosened, the wheels spun, and the miniature hammer fell, setting off the first of those dulcet tones that signalled the arrival of noon.”
If you’re looking for action, this isn’t the book you want. Broadly speaking, the first half of the book sees Alexander coming to terms with his new life and making the most of it while battling moments of intense doubt. The second half has more ‘happening’ moments, for want of a better term. Alexander has an unexpected responsibility thrust on him and finds he has to, in a way, reinvent himself again.
Alexander is not presented as infallible; he has his faults. There are times he comes across as superior with a hint of arrogance. As the years pass, his friends make a remark or shoot him a look signalling their annoyance or disapproval. However, he’s the sort of man who will do all in his power to help those he cares about.
The secondary characters in the book are written very well. My personal favourites, the maître d’, Andrey Duras, and the chef, Emile Zhukovsky, are the two mainstays of the restaurant on the second floor, the Boyarsky… “With vaulted ceilings and dark red walls reminiscent of a boyar’s retreat, the Boyarksy boasted the city’s most elegant décor, its most sophisticated waitstaff and its most subtle chef de cuisine.” I loved their little quirks and came to care for them as much as I did Alexander. It was a joy seeing their friendships develop and grow strong.
We meet my other favourite character in the other restaurant, the “grand dining room off the lobby… referred to affectionately by the Count as the Piazza… the Piazza did not aspire to elegance, service, or subtlety. With eighty tables scattered around a marble fountain and a menu offering everything from cabbage piroghi to cutlets of veal, the Piazza was meant to be an extension of the city… where the lone diner seated under the great glass ceiling could indulge himself in admiration, indignation, suspicion, and laughter without getting up from his chair.” It is here we are introduced to Nina Kulikova, the daughter of a widowed Ukrainian bureaucrat. A precocious nine-year-old, she is left in the care of her governess at the hotel. Naturally curious, she strikes up a friendship with Alexander, which I found quite endearing and humorous.
Over the years, I’ve personally enjoyed the company and friendship of young people, so I didn’t find this unnatural or weird in the least. I think, for Alexander, Nina’s friendship reminded him of his childhood years with his sister.
Another character I liked was the hotel itself, which is an actual hotel in Moscow, built between 1899-1907, in the Art Nouveau style. In this article, Towles explains how a visit to the Hotel Metropol inspired him to set ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ in it. He weaves actual historical events and people into the story in such a believable fashion, there were times I wondered if I was reading a novel, if Alexander actually did exist.
Another thing that makes this book even more interesting is the fact that Amor Towles doesn’t speak Russian and has never lived in Russia, only visited a few times. Yet, he’s effortlessly brought it to life. I read a review by a Russian who said he’s always wary of reading anything set in Russia by anyone who’s not Russian. He was blown away by Towles’ authentic writing.
And this brings me to the writing. Amor Towles’ writing leaves me awe-struck. His wordplay is elegant, funny and comes across as totally effortless. His descriptions make it easy to picture places I’ve never visited. I find it hard to explain exactly why I love the narrative in the same way I struggle to explain why I love a particular painting or piece of music. I just do because it’s beautiful and moves me on a soul-level.
One example that really stood out for me, so much so, I kept re-reading it, was this passage. Never have I read so eloquent a description of a piece of music – Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto: ‘After the trumpets sounded their first martial notes, the strings swelled, and then his countrymen began to play, evoking for the American audience the movement of a wolf through the birches, the wind across the steppe, the flicker of a candle in a ballroom, and the flash of a cannon at Borodino.’
‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ isn’t a perfect novel – is there such a thing? But, before I’d even finished it, I knew it already had a place on my list of all-time favourite books. And it’s one I know I’m going to re-read time and time again.