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Book review

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

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This is a beautiful book, with near-perfect pacing and charming characters. In it we follow the Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat, as he finds himself under house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel in the same square as the Kremlin.

Alexander is a man brought up to the grander things in life, as an aristocrat in the early 1900s in Russia, and as the book progresses we see something of the life he once had. As the book opens, in a tribunal after the revolution of 1918, he finds himself sentenced to live his life from a tiny attic room in the hotel. The conditions of his confinement also strip away almost all of his possessions, and leave him with no ability to leave the hotel. However, the Count is also a man who was once told by his guardian that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them”, and so he sets out to master the straits in which he finds himself.

We get to know several of the staff in the hotel, who in the coming years become close friends of the Count. We meet, for example, the Maitre d’, who is a master of his restaurant craft:

And when the woman holding the wine list asked for a recommendation, he didn’t point to the 1900 Bordeaux—at least not in the Teutonic sense. Rather, he slightly extended his index finger in a manner reminiscent of that gesture on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling with which the Prime Mover transmitted the spark of life.

The prose throughout is beautiful, and as Alexander gets to know a number of the regular guests, they too are sketched out with a delightful touch. And of course it is the way that their individual tales intertwine with his that makes up the warp and weft of the story:

By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.

Nowhere is the story too trite, either. There are even one or two jokes about how it’s not being trite:

“Ten years ago tomorrow, while I was biding my time in Paris, my sister died.” “Of a broken heart . . .?” “Young women only die of broken hearts in novels, Charles. She died of scarlet fever.”

Although there are serious themes in the book, the touch throughout is light, but not trivial – depending on who is in the spotlight. Compare:

Nina Kulikova always was and would be a serious soul in search of serious ideas to be serious about.

…with:

As the Count turned to go, an American who had commandeered the piano began performing a jaunty little number that celebrated a lack of bananas, a lack of bananas today.

It’s a great book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Five stars, well deserved.

Categories
Book review

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
Read date: Oct 2018

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished The Goldfinch, and wow, I’m at a bit of a loss for words. This is an epic book in every sense – the prose is quite extraordinary, with hugely evocative descriptions of a scene or a person, sentences going across many many lines, and then a single phrase that stops you in your tracks, leaving you gazing about as if someone has unexpectedly slapped you across the face with a wet towel. And even though it is 800+ pages, the story is gripping throughout, a real page-turner, as my neglected wife would tell you!

In some ways it’s a book of two halves, with a gap of eight years between them, and if I had a criticism it’s perhaps that the second half was longer than it needed to be. Although the descriptions and paragraphs are still as compelling as the first, perhaps we could have sped up the pace a little at times in that second half. Much more than that, I cannot say, for fear of revealing any of the many twists and turns within. I was reminded on the one hand of Edith Wharton and The House of Mirth, for the detailed and exquisite descriptions, and on the other hand of Cormac McCarthy and Blood Meridian, for the despair and depth written into almost every line.

Regardless of my minor quibble about the second half, this is a book that is going to live large in my imagination. The characters, the colour and vividness of the scenes, all quite astonishing. Even the conclusion is a revelation, throwing the rest of the book into a new light.

And, dear reader, if I could write one sentence as beautifully as Donna Tart writes 841 pages, I think I would die happy.

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