I didn’t know what to expect from Amor Towles’ new novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. It kinda sounded like a smart spy story, for which I was down. After noting a bunch of 5-star Amazon reviews I reasoned, I like gentlemen and am intrigued by all things Mother Russia. Its cover of hot pink Helvetica over a black-and-white photo sealed the deal.
In case that’s not enough for you, here’s a brief, spoiler-free introduction.
Count Rostov is up the proverbial creek. His family estate was seized during the Bolshevik Revolution. A snarky poem he authored condemns him to house arrest in a hotel. Sure, it’s swanky, centrally located and called “Metropol,” but still. From outside the walls of his suite, the Communist screws tighten more. Soon he’s forced to live in the hotel’s top-floor storage rooms, just below the roof.
Like Russian tales fictional and true, life could’ve turned bleak. As the walls literally close in on him, it would be understandable that Rostov adopt a bad attitude, or try to pull the last available aristocratic strings. Instead, our Count calmly adapts:
“His model for mastering his circumstances would be a different sort of captive altogether: an Anglican washed ashore. Like Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Isle of Despair, the Count would maintain his resolve by committing to the business of practicalities. Having dispensed with dreams of quick discovery, the world’s Crusoes seek shelter and a source of fresh water; they teach themselves to make fire from flint; they study their island’s topography, its climate, its flora and fauna, all the while keeping their eyes trained for sails on the horizon and footprints in the sand.”
Practicalities indeed. He learns to sew. He accommodates pigeons. He works as headwaiter of the hotel restaurant. Talk about upheaval! Landed gentry to server in a single lifetime. Again and again, it is…what we make it.
Although Rostov steels himself and makes the best of it, his fall from grace could’ve been a literary downer. Instead, A Gentleman in Moscow is one of the most light-hearted and profound novels I’ve read.
I caught myself smiling as I ploughed through its 480 pages. The writing is so bright, so lyrical, reading it feels like following the bouncing ball. Take this:
“The pencil was moving so brightly it looked like an honor guard—parading across the page with its head held high then pivoting at the margin to make the quick march back.”
About that most basic of writing instruments, ladies and gentlemen. O, the Oprah Magazine, which I’m usually eager to dismiss on grounds of snobbery, calls it “as lavishly filigreed as a Faberge egg.” It is.
I resorted to devious tactics to read undisturbed, like keeping my Kindle in airplane mode so it wouldn’t sync and whisk the story away, depositing me at the end of a 192-person wait list.
Of course, our Count’s change of circumstances is the whole point. As the story unfolds, it’s clear the substance and quality of Rostov’s life is inversely proportional to the square footage allotted to him. The scarcity of physical space leads to an abundance of human connection. In case you’re still unmoved, a final piece of evidence:
“He had said that our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity—a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.”
P.S. This gorgeous video summary of the novel is a tad spoiler-y for my tastes. Maybe watch it on mute.
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