Originally published February 2018
Even in the lowest of moments, it’s possible to find joy.
It is one of my favorite things about reading — when messages most profound are so cleverly crafted across the span of an entire novel. Such is the case with Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow.”
Having read Towles’ first novel, “Rules of Civility,” I was already a fan — yet, I hadn’t quite pulled “Gentleman” off the shelf, as the TBR list is long and it was toward the back end. A chance opportunity for an interview immediately pushed it to top of the pile. Thank goodness for friends and editors.
“A Gentleman in Moscow” is a tale of forged family set in the Metropol Hotel, Moscow, from the early 1920s to the mid-1950s, with the central character being one Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. Alexander is a man of certain fortune despite his circumstance, and when sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol, goes about his new life as a Former Person with a kind of gusto only found in people determined to make the best of the worst.
This isn’t to say Alexander is immune to depression. I would imagine being referred to officially as a “Former Person” has consequences, and the first third of the novel explores what happens to a man with no defined purpose. But it’s that sense of family — the family we define for ourselves when blood relations are no longer within our grasp — that can make life worth living.
For Alexander, it is the other denizens of the hotel — the chef, Emilie; the seamstress, Marina; the maitre’d, Andrey … and a winsome young girl named Nina — that make up for what he has long since lost or left behind. With a newfound sense of purpose, a love of good food and even better drink, and the arts for which he is imprisoned, Alexander carves out a life over the course of 30 years inside the Metropol.
It would seem such a finite setting — the confines of a single hotel — would make for a short, maybe even claustrophobic read, but far from it. “Gentleman” transports you to a resilient existence in a turbulent time for Moscow. And while Alexander must stay, others do come and go, and it’s that and the passage of time that lead Alexander to one of the most profound roles of his life, as an unexpected parent to another young girl, Sofia.
The devil is in the details, and with this book, it’s important to take your time and savor the descriptive nature of Towles’ writing. Skim it, and you’ll be less susceptible to the joy you could experience in Alexander’s relationships with two of the more transient characters, Anna and Mischka. Or how important his friendship with a Red Army colonel becomes in saving that which he holds most dear.
I have a running conversation with friends about modern authors that could join or replace those typically taught in high school, and Towles is one of them. Exquisite writing and well worth the long read.