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Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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“... life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions. Our faculties wax and wane, our experiences accumulate, and our opinions evolve - if not glacially, then at least gradually.“

What an incredible book. I am amazed at Amor Towles, not only for his incredible writing, but also for how he came up with the premise for A Gentleman in Moscow. It took me a while to get through A Gentleman in Moscow, not because it wasn’t amazing, but because I wanted to take my time with Towles’ writing. It did take me a few tries to really get into it, but once I did, I was hooked. A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov and his house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. He wrote a poem that celebrated the lifestyles of the aristocracy in 1913, but following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Bolsheviks harped on the corruption of the aristocrats and upper class, really anyone living a leisurely life. So in 1922, a Bolshevik tribunal sentenced Count Rostov to live the rest of his life at the Metropol Hotel. He had lived there for a few years beforehand in a lovely suite, but now is forced to move to a tiny room in the attic of the hotel. However, Rostov makes the most of it and keeps to his routine. Over the years his closest friends become the staff at the Metropol.

When Rostov meets a little girl named Nina, his whole life changes. When Rostov first meets Nina, she is only nine years old, but already wildly precocious. Nina and Rostov strike up an unlikely friendship, often exploring the deepest bowels of the Metropol. Rostov also strikes up a friendship with Anna, a charming actress. Whenever Anna stays at the Metropol over the years, the two engage in a lovely affair that lasts for years. Rostov also becomes very close to Chef Emile and the maitre’d Andrey, as well as other long-term staff members Marina, the seamstress, and Arkady, the bartender.

When Rostov has been at the Metropol for about fifteen years, Nina returns with her daughter Sofia. Nina asks Rostov to look after Sofia for a few weeks while Nina goes to locate her husband who was sentenced to a labor camp. Rostov knows nothing of taking care of a child, so he enlists the help of his friends to help him take care of Sofia. As years pass, Rostov adopts Sofia, and they have just the sweetest relationship.

I loved that this story focused on the many different relationships in Rostov’s life. My two favorite relationships were with Nina and then later Sofia. Rostov had a younger sister Helena who died before he was sentenced to life at the Metropol. He loved Helena more than anyone in the world, and he had a soft spot for both Nina and Sofia before he even really got to know them. He never treated either of them like a child; he treated them like adults and got to know their personalities. I especially adored how he took the time to play games with each of them. I also enjoyed Rostov’s daily meetings with Emile and Andrey. The three of them went over the menu and the seating arrangements for the Boyarsky restaurant in the Metropol. After several years of Rostov’s house arrest, he eventually became head waiter at the Boyarsky. After years spent living in a hotel, the head waiter position gave Rostov a sense of purpose and some much needed structure to his day. Emile and Andrey became Rostov’s closest friends and even became loving uncles to Sofia.

I enjoyed Amor Towles’ first novel Rules of Civility when I read it a few years ago, partly because of the storyline, but mostly because of Towles’ writing. There were so many passages in A Gentleman in Moscow that I underlined because Towles has such an incredible way with words. I remember thinking the same thing in Rules of Civility, but I loved A Gentleman in Moscow more. I am very curious how Towles came up with the idea for this novel. It is such a fresh and novel concept, a Russian aristocrat sentenced to life in a luxury hotel in Moscow for the rest of his life; I wonder what the inspiration was. Towles is a master at using the setting of his novels to highlight the characters’ relationships to one another, especially when almost all of the story happens in one place. The Metropol Hotel is its own character in the story. It grows and changes with the times, but remains a safe haven for Rostov, as well as for Nina and Sofia.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow and think it was best to take my time reading it. I read really quickly and have to force myself to take my time with certain stories, and A Gentleman in Moscow definitely needs to be savored. If you are looking for a good story with well-developed characters, I cannot recommend A Gentleman in Moscow enough. I give it 4 stars.  

What historical fiction books do you enjoy?

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