A Gentleman in Moscow review

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After spending time in quarantine this year, homesickness is definitely a thing of the past. With so much time on their hands, many have taken to finding new reads. The historical novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is a strong competitor for the ultimate quarantine book. In it, Towles explores the question: “What if you had your favorite thing in the world, all the time?” Shortly after the terror of the Bolshevik revolution, a charming Russian nobleman, Count Alexander Rostov, is given a special punishment for penning a Bolshevik sympathetic poem. He must live in his favorite hotel, with all the luxuries of upper class living, for the rest of his life. If he leaves, he is shot dead. Being trapped inside the comfort of your home, free to go on a walk to the store whenever you wish, may not seem too bad now. 

The novel chronicles the life of  Rostov after he is sentenced to eternal confinement to his formerly favorite Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The poem he is accused of writing, as well as his suddenly vulnerable status as an aristocrat, leaves him in a precarious situation that he handles with almost humorous grace. Functioning as a commentary on the time as well as a touching personal narrative, the novel depicts the cultural repercussions of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet Union through the eyes of a helpless observer. Rostov sees the suffering  of the Russian people through those he meets during his years in the hotel, from an enigmatic little girl to a world-famous actress. His kind and unshaken demeanor uplifts not only his own lonely soul, but also that of the reader’s, making his confinement a marvelous adventure. As the hotel transitions from a relaxing urban paradise to a dull prison, Rostov’s will is kept aflame by the people who have come to cherish him. 

The magic of this novel is how, through Rostov, a terrible and fearful time becomes enchanting and invigorating. Rostov’s humorous antics and the more mysterious elements of the hotel distract from the pain of the outside, at least for as long as the Count can bear it. Towles’ portrayal of Rostov as an ideal gentleman, kind and embodying an almost silly concept of a manly Russian aristocrat, makes his narrative so compelling. It is a story of people, of whom Rostov is a vehicle of expression, that shows the beauty and intrigue of their lives as they survive under Soviet rule. The darker elements of the novel are subtler, from characters’ disappearances to Stalin’s gulags to a Bolshevik spy in the hotel’s midst, balancing Rostov’s originally sheltered viewpoint. Towles’ poignant writing also makes the narrative move with an appropriately fast and dramatic pace. His imagery, especially of Rostov’s treasured fancy meals and decadent hotel decorations, make the Metropol endlessly entertaining.

This novel has many memorable moments that embody its unique sense of humor. The side characters contribute to this, with my personal favorites being Rostov’s childhood friend, Mishka, and the hotel staff. Eccentric poet and writer Mishka, despite his suffering because of his political beliefs and terrible luck, brings a higher degree of melancholy and complexity to Rostov and the narrative. He is Rostov’s original antithesis, an intellectual of lower class background with a brash, hot temper. Yet to an extent, their fates are mismatched. It is through him that the underlying moral themes of the novel, and the greater question of what it means to have a purpose in the world are revealed. 

This work is not only a masterful depiction of the era, but a personal story of a man who we can relate to now more than ever. The place he always felt most comfortable with becomes a prison as time passes, leaving him ample, if not too much, time to ponder his place in the world and how to spend his days. During times of isolation, this book exemplifies that maintaining connections with people you love is vital to keeping yourself sane. The ambiguous end to the novel, although sweet and dramatic, will leave you wanting more, to see that the Count has fully found all the answers to his conflicts.

Image from Pixabay