A Gentleman in Moscow is a book that has been on my shelf almost since its publication in 2016. I’ve heard remarkable things about Towles’s style and characterization. However, I had also heard that it was a quiet book, a slow story softly told, so I decided that I would have to be in just exactly the right mood to pick it up. I was so wrong. While I understand the quiet description, as the plot follows our protagonist after he is sentenced to a life of house arrest within the walls of Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, it was by no means slow. Yes, the story was obviously constrained in setting by our main character’s confinement, but his life was still so tremendously full that I never felt like that pace wasn’t being propelled forward quickly enough. A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautiful, moving, utterly charming story, with characters who won my heart completely and prose that I wanted to sink into and live inside forever.
“…what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”
Count Alexander Rostov won me over immediately, as he maintained an aggressively sunny attitude in the face of a distressing situation. He refused to see the glass of his circumstances as half empty, instead finding ways to be not just accepting of, but even pleased about the situation in which he found himself. At least externally. There is of course internal conflict, without which he wouldn’t be nearly as compelling. I found the Count’s voice incredibly enchanting. When he compares reading a book of essays to crawling across the Sahara, or the arms of a clock embracing when noon is struck, I was utterly charmed. How could I not immediately love him? Something about the room he is assigned versus the rooms to which he was accustomed, and how he makes the most of a much smaller space, brought to mind one of my favorite children’s classics: A Little Princess.
“…if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”
The Count was my age when sentenced to never again step foot out of the Hotel. For some reason I went into this book thinking he was edging into elderly territory when the sentence was handed down. I can’t even imagine being so confined so young. And yet, he managed to carve out a remarkably full life for himself, mostly in the relationships he developed within the walls of the Hotel. I found the Count’s relationship with nine year-old Nina sweet and joyful and just all around lovely. The deep bond he developed with the other two members of the Triumvirate is the best kind of friendship, the type that everyone aspires to find at least once in their lives. And then there’s his relationship with Sofia, which I will not even try to encapsulate with a description. It was moving and delightful and deep in the love and respect they had for one another.
“But the truth is: No matter how much time passes, those we have loved never slip away from us entirely.”
Let’s talk about the prose that so enchanted me. The writing elicited a similar response in me as evoked by The Shadow of the Wind when I first read it: pure delight at the charm. The prose is exceptionally witty and thoughtful in equal measures. I was immediately transported to the city in question, and fell for the protagonist before the end of the first chapter. While A Gentleman in Moscow doesn’t have the same tension or elements of magical realism and mystery as The Shadow of the Wind, I can think of no better comparison. Without even stepping foot out of the Metropol Hotel, we were shows decades of ever-evolving Russian life in Moscow through the eyes of the Count. I couldn’t believe upon finishing this novel that Towles wasn’t a Russian who had lived through the Revolution, or that the Count wasn’t at least a real individual who had given Towles his story to pass on. But no, Amor Towles was born and raised in Boston and now resides in Manhattan. The ways in which he so exquisitely captured a time and place he had never experienced for himself boggles the mind.
“To what end, he wondered, had the Divine created the stars in heaven to fill a man with feelings of inspiration one day and insignificance the next?”
One additional comment about the writing: every single chapter title began with the letter A. Does this have any bearing whatsoever on the story itself? No. Did I find it delightful? Absolutely. And one word of advice: this is book meant to be sipped and savored. Take your time when you decide to embark on your journey with the Count. This book comprises decades of his life, after all. I’m very glad that I didn’t rush through it, but instead gave it time to breathe, like a good bottle of the wine so loved by the Count.
“…life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions.”
A Gentleman in Moscow is everything I was promised and more. This is a book that I have no doubt will still be charming readers generations from now. It will unequivocally stand the test of time. For a novel so strongly based in a specific time and place, there’s a timeless element to the story that, when combined with Towles’s stellar prose and charming characters, gives it incredible staying power.
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