Every so often a novel comes along that takes the public by storm and deservedly so. One cannot help but be astonished by how a writer can spin a mesmerizing tale with mere words. Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking) is an example of such breathtaking talent. And this novel is certainly reaching the masses: after I received this book recommendation, I had to wait months before it arrived at my local library. I was unable to finish it in two weeks, so I put it on reserve again. The librarian told me, “You’ll have to begin reading the book over again because you’re 94th on the waiting list.” Very fortunately, someone loaned the book to me with the most reassuring words a reader can hear: “Take your time.”
I savored reading every page of this novel as one savors every bite of a gourmet meal. It is full of the experiences, keen observations, and wisdom of the main character. One such example was when he was told he must relinguish the majority of the possessions his family has held unto for generations: “From the earliest age, we must learn to say goodbye to friends and family….It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow by the shoulders and wishing him well,…But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn’t welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends.”
The novel begins in the year 1922. The Russian Revolution has triumphed and Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt, is placed under house arrest at the world-renowned Metropolis Hotel in Moscow. The Count, who had been already residing there in a suite consisting of “an interconnected bedroom, bath, dining room, and grand salon with eight-foot windows overlooking the lindens of Theatre Square” would now be moved to a room in the attic formerly housing butlers and maids. How luck can change.
The Count’s reaction to his reduced circumstances is to accept it with grace and good spirits while maintaining his sharp wit. The Count retains his dignity despite his changing fortune while at the same time, reflecting on his privileged life and the nostalgic luster of bygone days.Whereas before the Revolution he traveled widely and experienced the best life has to offer, the perks of being born into the aristocracy, he eventually is forced to work as headwaiter at the Boyarsky, the hotel’s restaurant. The Count must take orders from the hotel manager, a Communist-party member from a working-class background who relishes the fall of the aristocratic class, making the Count his obvious target.
In the middle of the story a little girl is placed in the care of the Count, who never married and has no experience with children. Once again, he rises to the occasion by bringing her up and sheltering her from the chaos and corruption as the Communist Party enforces their harsh edicts of farm collectivitzation, punishing those who object to the system, and abolishing the aristocratic class by execution or declaring them”former persons.”
Two criticisms of the novel is the seemingly effortless road the Count has in bringing up the child—the girl has no periods of rebellion, she is loved by everyone on the hotel staff, and the author Towles portrays her as exceptionally brilliant, poised, and beautiful. In other words, this portrayal feels unrealistic. The ending is also ambiguous, which is disconcerting for readers who have gone through so much of the Count’s history in this 462-page tome.
However, aside from these drawbacks, on the whole, A Gentleman in Moscow provides the reader a rich, engrossing experience. The Count maintaining his dignity and character as he recounts the bygone days of Russian aristocratic life while facing the stark reality of the Soviet Union is an enchanting tale not to be missed.