Friday, March 17, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow: My Favorite Recommendation

It's not unusual for me to start encouraging others to read a book before I'm even finished reading it. Some books just seem perfect for  my reading friends. When I started Amor Towles' latest novel A Gentleman in Moscow, I felt that way--but even more so. I was ready to recommend it to my book club based on just a few chapters. I called my mother and told her to read it. Meanwhile, I kept reading, and I was not disappointed. This book is probably my favorite in awhile, which  is particularly significant because it's not dark, disturbing, or esoteric. It's not one of those books that some people just won't get.

The book opens during the Bolshevik Revolution as Count Alexander Rostov is called before a tribunal for the simple crime of being an aristocrat. Either despite or because of the measure of fame he's achieved through poetry, his judges decide that instead of putting him before a firing squad, they will sentence him to house arrest at Moscow's Metropol Hotel. The Count has already been living there for awhile, but he is moved out of his suite and forced to "downsize"--settling into a small attic room. Towels presents the details so clearly over the course of the tale, I imagine I've visited the Count's room.

During the course of his stay--the novel covers at least thirty years--he encounters delightful characters among the guests and the staff of the hotel, some ambiguous, and some straight-out antagonists. He first meets Nina, a young girl staying with her family at the Metropol who asks him about "rules for princesses." He also befriends the wait staff at the finest restaurant in the hotel--and then joins them.

Nashville novelist Ann Patchett has admitted that she just writes the same book over and over: a group of people, nothing alike, are thrown together. Towles has tales the formula and perfected it. Readers will hate "the Bishop," an inept waiter who, via the Peter Principle, manages to climb the management ladder at the Metropol. They will find delightful Anna Urbanova, the Soviet actress with her dubious back story, will  fall in love with Sofia, whom the Count raises as his daughter, and they will be amused by the Russian who comes to Rostov to be tutored in languages and culture, but ends up Brando watching films, particularly Casablanca. 

From his limited point of view, Count Rostov has a window view on Moscow--and the world. His knowledge of food, wine, and music is eclipsed by his understanding of human nature. Towles has produced a multi-layer narrative that does much more than charm the reader. The author also gives just enough of Alexander's past, especially the story of his sister's death, to give even more insight into the man.

For now, I anticipate happily the opportunity to discuss the book with others--and then to pick it up and read it one more time.

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