Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility—a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel
With his breakout debut novel, Rules of Civility, Amor Towles established himself as a master of absorbing, sophisticated fiction, bringing late 1930s Manhattan to life with splendid atmosphere and a flawless command of style. Readers and critics were enchanted; as NPR commented, “Towles writes with grace and verve about the mores and manners of a society on the cusp of radical change.”
A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in another elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
Brimming with humour, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavour to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.
Dear Amor Towles,
I don’t often peruse bestsellers list books, and if I do, it is usually some years later after many, many people read them and some friends whose tastes run close to mine recommend one. After such recommendation, I finally ordered this book from the library. The topic (Russian history) also added to the desire to check this one out.
Of course usually when the book is on the New York time bestsellers list the writing is great and this book is no exception. I highly recommend checking out the sample though, because at times it did go into the overly descriptive category for me, but overall it worked. Since I checked out the book from the library, it looks like I cannot share any quotes in my review.
Actually it was quite hard for me to figure out how to review this book. Besides saying the language is great, I am not really qualified to discuss the details of how the book was written, and the story does not really have much plot which I like to discuss in my reviews.
Comparatively speaking though, this book ended up having more plot than many literary fiction books have. I found the initial premise incredibly silly – because no, Alexander Rostov would not have been ordered to live his life in a luxury hotel, under so called “home arrest”. He would have been put in the real prison or, which would have been way more likely in 1920s, shot. I decided to go along with the premise and see if it holds up as a vehicle of examining Alexander’s character growth.
As such, it did work for me. Alexander was a lovely character, full of quiet dignity and interesting philosophical insights. He built an actual life for himself inside of the Metropol, he found friends, life purpose and actual work. It is also possible that he found love.
I was very curious how the author would address the horrible events taking place in Russia during the thirty something years Alexander was supposed to be in the Metropol, because overall the narrative certainly did not give me a tragic feel. I saw the word “charming” describing the book in several reviews and I think it is an appropriate description.
For the most part the way the tragedies of the second world war in Russian history were mentioned worked, it was mentioned briefly – as much as it touched the characters who interacted with Alexander, but for me in this book it was enough. Although I am not sure if I bought that the second world war affected them that little – devastation should have touched the hotel itself more. I mean, the tone of the book would have became more grim, but if the book wants to be a historical fiction, I think it would have been unavoidable.
It was nice for once to understand the vast majority of the references and foot notes in the book. When I am reading American literary fiction and it is full of foot notes, more often than not I feel as if the information in those is very new to me.
In the last seventy to eighty pages, the narrative actually treats us to a little adventure which also worked for me because of the purpose of the said adventure for the character who will remain unnamed because of the spoilers. What I do wonder about is whether the ending for Alexander is meant to be optimistic or not. I found the ending to be VERY fitting for his character arc, but if it was meant to be optimistic, the author was being naïve. And I love optimistic endings.
I was sorry to say good bye to Sasha and the last thing I am still wondering about was whether his last name was meant to invoke any associations to my favorite character from War and Peace. Honestly besides both of them being nobles I have not seen many.
Your review pushes me to read this book which has been floating around my kindle app for several months.
It also raises a question: Why can’t you quote from a library book? (Google is not being helpful -or- I am not asking the right question.)
I started reading this a couple of years ago and quit about a third of the way in because I was afraid of a tragic ending. It sounds like that’s not the case, though?
I also wondered why he would be put under house arrest in a luxury hotel and not executed or thrown in some awful prison, like you say. Good to know I wasn’t wrong about that.
The book was well-written but the hotel setting started to feel claustrophobic after a while. But obviously that was part of the point.
Each of the author’s books sounds very different from the others and I may try another.
@LML: I think what Sirius might mean is that she couldn’t cut and paste from a library book. I’ve noticed the same thing with books I’ve read on Hoopla.
@Jayne, thanks. I became frustrated trying to find an explanation of the legal difference between quoting from library and owned books. I completely forgot libraries have ebooks.
I read this several years ago with my book group. My group generally reads literary fiction that is dark/dismal; A Gentleman in Moscow made a very pleasant exception to that rule.
I read “A Gentleman in Moscow” right after reading (OK, skimming much of) “Where the Crawdads Sing”. Very much liked the former, very much didn’t like the latter. Both were, in their way, fairy tales, where the good end happily and the bad unhappily, but the characters in the Towles book came alive for me and I cared about them. In the Owens, the natural world came alive but the characters did not. Janine is correct that in the Real World the count would probably have died in prison or been shot and life in Moscow was pretty grim, but I found Towles such a gifted storyteller that I was able to suspend my disbelief — as I said, sometimes one wants to believe in the fairy tale and some authors are able to make us do so.
@Jayne: Yes, sorry thats exactly what I meant.@Janine Ballard: Yep the only reason why he is in the luxury hotel is because author said so, but as a narrative set-up it worked more to less. The ending is definitely NOT tragic, but if you want to take a realistic view of what may happen after the ending I don’t see it as not tragic either, but thats if you approach the book as historical fiction and look beyond. On page it is not tragic at all.@Susan/DC: Absolutely, but see what I wrote to Janine. I have not exactly realized that I am supposed to approach it as a fairy tale and thats why had some dissonance happening, but for the most part I really liked it and enjoyed the characters a lot.
@Janine Ballard: @Janine Ballard: Sorry I also meant to say that I ordered “The Rules of Civility” from the library.
@Kareni: I am not sure when I will be in the mood for dark/dismal books if I previously have not read those before and know what will happen at least. Probably not very soon.
@Susan/DC: I guess I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief as well as you were. What I know of the reality of Revolutionary Russia (Sirius knows a lot more) is so far from a fairy tale that as a backdrop for one it struck a jarring note.
BTW, one of my favorite short stories of the twentieth century is Nathan Englander’s “The Twenty-Seventh Man.” It can be found in his short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which is available in many libraries. “The Twenty-Seventh Man” is also a fable about Soviet Russsia and men (in this case all writers) who were arrested. It is obviously a fable, and does not read like something out of reality (it isn’t intended to), and yet for me, it spoke far more powerfully than A Gentleman in Moscow because even though it was made obvious that the story wasn’t real, it nevertheless spoke to what I believe are truths about the predicament of such men in the USSR in a way that A Gentleman in Moscow did not.
Sirius, if you ever read this story I would love to know what you think of it. To me it’s one of the very few recent (by which I mean of the past few decades) literary short stories that ought to be considered a bona fide classic. It’s the first story in the book so you can read the first few pages in the “Look Inside” preview on Amazon:
@Janine: I have not read this author at all, thank you for recommendation.
@Sirius: I find him uneven and this story is really the only thing of his that I loved. A lot of people have raved about the other short stories in this same collection, though.
@Janine: I read the Nathan Englander book when it first came out. Because I didn’t keep a reading journal at the time I don’t remember it in detail and have no record of my reaction. I do remember that I thought the story of the prisoners and the one about the Jews who wind up as acrobats were the ones that had the biggest impact on me (the title story didn’t appeal). In my mind I didn’t think of them as fairy tales but as surreal, and the ending of “The Tumblers” reminded me somewhat of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” — not reality but the ending one wished for. I wish I could be more concrete in my comments, but, as I said, it’s been a very long time.
@Susan/DC: “The Tumblers” was definitely the second-best story in the collection, and the rest were forgettable IMO. “The Twenty-Seventh Man” is nothing short of brilliant, though.
Surrealist fiction and literary fabulism have a lot of overlap and are sometimes referred to interchangeably. They aren’t the same thing as fairy tales, though, I agree. What I meant was that the story in “The Twenty-Seventh Man” is in some ways just as unlikely as the one in A Gentleman in Moscow but it speaks to a greater truth whereas A Gentleman in Moscow (if I understand what Sirius is saying about the ending; I only read part of the book) is more of a fantasy.
This connects to what you say about “The Tumblers” — “not reality but the ending one wished for.” The impact of the way “The Tumblers” ends comes from the fact that we know it isn’t the real ending; we know that the real ending is the unthinkable, and the story thinks itself into a better ending. That is very much the case with “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” also—great parallel.
“The Tumblers” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” are neither of them a fantasy / fairy tale so much as stories about how in some circumstances we need a fantasy / fairy tale enough to accept one over reality. Whereas A Gentleman in Moscow sounds like an actual fantasy / fairy tale. We either accept it for what it is or reject it on those same grounds, and if it makes us think of how reality differs from the story, it’s not because that was the author’s deliberate purpose.
@Janine: I will eventually get it from the library I think. I won’t be buying it for one story.
Just one more comment, slightly off topic: Many years ago there was a short film made of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. I think it was shown as an episode of The Twilight Zone, but I’m really not sure. IIRC, it had little or no dialogue, which I think enhanced the drama. It made a big impression on a very young me at the time.