Books on GIF #54 — 'A Gentleman in Moscow' by Amor Towles
|Books on GIF||Sep 17, 2017|
This Sunday's book is 'A Gentleman in Moscow' by Amor Towles.
This book was given to me by Heidi with a warning that several celebrities liked it. Its protagonist is Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat who is sentenced to house arrest at the fancy Metropol Hotel shortly after the Russian revolution, where this happened:
Rostov is confined, instead of being shot or sent to Siberia, because of an inspirational poem he wrote before the outbreak of World War I and the fall of the tsar. When the book opens, we find the count being moved from his opulent hotel room to an attic space, where he will live for the next few decades. At first, he tries to maintain his life of gentlemanly leisure by reading Montaigne, getting his hair cut weekly and eating at the Metropol's upscale restaurant, the Boyarsky. Soon he befriends a 9-year-old girl named Nina, who's also a resident of the hotel. They have adventures together spying on Communist Party meetings in the ballroom and exploring the basement, among other things. But just when you think this is going to turn into some kind of ersatz father-daughter buddy story, Nina leaves:
She returns years later with a 5-year-old daughter, Sofia, whom she begs the count to look after while she tries to free the child's father from a Siberian prison. Nina never returns, but the father-daughter buddy thing is back on again with a different child. Go figure.
Turns out, Sofia is the perfect child. She's intelligent, nearly unaffected about her disappeared parents and is a musical genius. She and Rostov get along well and also have adventures in the hotel over the years. Sofia could have been an interesting character. She is basically forced to share Rostov's confinement after she loses her parents, and I thought she would have at least been angry or resentful at the count or the Soviets or both. But Towles opts not to explore her internal life. Instead, Sofia is like nearly every other character, with the exception of the count, and made of:
And this hurts the book. There was no real conflict among the characters, and they never seemed to be in any real danger. The villain was easily thwarted at every turn and never a legitimate threat, even during the climax, which I think was supposed to be tense but wasn't very. Death and the gulag, which have defined literature set in Soviet Russia, are kept safely in the background. I thought maybe Towles was trying to position the story as a bookend to 'The Gulag Archipelago' by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. That book focused on the unluckiest Russians, while 'A Gentleman in Moscow' is about a character who openly admits he is the luckiest. Sure, the count can't leave the hotel, and, after contemplating suicide, he eventually has to give up his leisurely life to become the head waiter at the Boyarsky. But he also gets to live in a cool attic lair all by himself (and later with Sofia) surrounded by books (heaven!), have the perfect daughter and also shack up on occasion with a fading movie star whenever she checks in. As far as prisons go, the Metropol is less the Chateau d'If and more:
Even so, 'A Gentleman in Moscow' is a charming book, and I enjoyed reading it. Towles has an easily readable style, and this is a good book to take on a jaunt out of town or to read on a rainy weekend. And I actually liked the count. I enjoyed his journey, and I was happy for him in the end. But if you're looking for meatier Russian fare, look elsewhere.
'A Gentleman in Moscow' by Amor Towles was published in 2016 by Viking. 462 pages.
What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'Avid Reader' by Robert Gottlieb, 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy and 'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood, among others.
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Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!