Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Amor Towles’ debut novel, The Rules of Civility, an elegant character study set in a lush 1930s New York setting, was a major hit with readers. In A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles returns with a polished sophomore effort that evokes the people, setting, and history of Russia with charm, panache, and substance. Readers will inhale all 480 pages of this gem with relish while critics offer glowing reviews. It’s rare that a novel that can be called charming wins a Kirkus star as charmers are often too sentimental, too twee, or simply too-too. A Gentleman in Moscow is that rare novel that will appeal to your maiden aunt, your snobbish high school lit teacher, your friend who wants a page-turner, and your colleague who wants to learn a little history.

Covering the changing Russian landscape from 1922 to 1954, A Gentleman in Moscow succeeds at capturing the essence of Russian politics without ham-handedly annoying the reader with a dry recitation of facts. Instead, the novel’s characters stand in for the rulers, the ruled, and the simply confused and they do it all with a whimsical touch.

The novel opens as Count Alexander Rostov listens to a Bolshevik tribunal sentencing him to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, a luxurious haven where he’s lived for the past four years. The Count offers witty bon mots instead of apologies as in this reply to why he returned to Moscow from his self-imposed exile in Paris: “I missed the climate.” The tribunal officers are not amused and tell him, “should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.” So, on the twenty-first of June in 1922, armed guards escort the Count through the gates of the Kremlin into Red Square and across the street to the hotel where they move him from his elaborate suite to attic quarters barely 100 feet square. Prepared with hidden resources, the count survives and even flourishes as he enjoys the restaurants, his barber, his seamstress, and the ever-cordial staff. Soon he befriends precocious Nina, a young girl who hopes he can tell her how to be a princess. She encourages him to look beyond the hotel’s public spaces and tells him “Don’t be such a fuddy-duddy” and he looks inwardly while replying “A man can never be entirely sure that he is not a fuddy-duddy. That is axiomatic to the term.” To which he joins Nina and the world within the hotel opens to him.
Ultimately, the Count becomes a part of the Metropol community where he encourages the staff to become their best selves despite their individual limitations. The Count’s interactions with staff members and guests of the hotel make the novel resemble Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, another wry, philosophical tale. The third person narration moves the pages swiftly, yet never interferes with the wisdom and appeal of the characters or their dilemmas.

When I set this book down, I felt as if I’d returned from a vacation on another continent in the distant past where I’d had a whale of a good time.  Who could ask for more? 

Summing It Up: A Gentleman in Moscow is a kind, witty, compassionate, and informative glimpse of thirty-two years in the lives of a cast of engaging characters in a hotel in Moscow.  It would be a disservice to the reader to reveal any more of its delectable plot. From its witty beginning to its artful ending, this novel is sure to please.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Dessert, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: September 6, 2016
Author Website: http://www.amortowles.com/
What Others are Saying:
Shelf Awareness: http://www.shelf-awareness.com/issue.html?issue=2806#m33287

In his remarkable first novel, the best-selling Rules of Civility, Towles etched 1930s New York in crystalline relief. Though set a world away in Moscow over the course of three decades, his latest polished literary foray into a bygone era is just as impressive… —Booklist

1 comment:

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