First published in 2016
My rating: 5 out of 5
The Short Of It:
This book was a joy to read and it's one of my favorites this year!
The Long Of It:
Every once in a while I happen upon a book that is just a pure delight to read, and "A Gentleman in Moscow," with it's charming protagonist, unique setting, beautiful writing, positive outlook and spot-on observations about life, was one of those gems.
Count Alexander Rostov is our esteemed main character, and at just 30 he's convicted of being an unrepentant aristocrat and sentenced to live out his days in Moscow's Hotel Metropol; if he steps outside, he'll be shot. It's 1922, and the Bolshevik Revolution is in full swing.
Luckily, Alexander possesses a unique zest for life, an infectious good humor and a very pragmatic outlook on his situation. It doesn't hurt that the Hotel Metropol -- the preeminent hotel in Moscow and perhaps all of Russia -- is basically a small village unto itself. And so begins the second chapter of Alexander's life, in which he lives in a tiny room in the Metropol's attic with an infinitesimal fraction of his previous belongings, and in which he views events large -- the rise of communism, World War II -- and small -- geese set loose in the hotel, a famous actress in residence -- from his now-permanent home.
And though Alexander can't place a toe outside the hotel, his days are far from stagnant. A vibrant cast of characters comes into his life over the years, from the moody chef of the hotel's famous restaurant who becomes one of Alexander's very best friends to a government official who secretly loves Humphrey Bogart to an adorably precocious little girl who will change his life in unimaginable ways.
In addition to the colorful characters and our charismatic protagonist, I loved the setting and the historical fiction aspect of the story. Despite Alexander spending almost the entirety of the book within the Hotel Metropol, Towles is able to vividly portray early- to mid-century Russia, with its secret police, its Siberian labor camps, its cheerful church domes, its inhospitable weather and its hearty cuisine. I haven't read many books that take place in Russia so I thoroughly enjoyed the rich details and I learned plenty of new-to-me Russian history. (It was especially interesting since I recently watched the "War & Peace" BBC miniseries, and Tolstoy's novel and the Napoleonic Wars are mentioned several times in Towles' book.)
On top of all that, I found Towles' writing to be absolutely gorgeous -- conversational, warm, funny and beautifully descriptive -- exactly as if Count Rostov were a beloved old friend chatting over tea. I can't remember the last time a book made me smile and chuckle so often. I most appreciated when Towles employed his lovely prose to impart bits of life lesson and observation from Alexander's point of view. A few examples:
"Either way, a cup of coffee would hit the spot. For what is more versatile? As at home in tin as it is in Limoges, coffee can energize the industrious at dawn, calm the reflective at noon, or raise the spirits of the beleaguered in the middle of the night."
"Surely the span of time between the placing of an order and the arrival of appetizers is one of the most perilous in all human interaction. What young lovers have not found themselves at this juncture in a silence so sudden, so seemingly insurmountable that it threatens to cast doubt upon their chemistry as a couple? What husband and wife have not found themselves suddenly unnerved by the fear that they might not ever have something urgent, impassioned, or surprising to say to each other again? So it is with good reason that most of us meet this dangerous interstice with a sense of foreboding."
"When all is said and done, the endeavors that most modern men saw as urgent (such as appointments with bankers and the catching of trains), probably could have waited, while those they deemed frivolous (such as cups of tea and friendly chats) had deserved their immediate attention."
I can see how "A Gentleman in Moscow" might not be everyone's favorite. It's definitely a character-driven story -- which I don't always enjoy myself -- and overall it was a bit of a quiet tale, but it was so very well done. Despite the lack of edge-of-my-seat action, I absolutely couldn't put this book down. I loved the protagonist and the minor characters, I loved the setting -- both Russia and the Hotel Metropol, I loved the atmosphere of the time period, and most of all I loved Towles' expert writing. If his first novel, "The Rules of Civility," is as good as his second, he will most definitely be among my list of most favorite authors!