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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.