Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, takes place almost entirely within the walls of the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov lived there in 1922, when he was convicted as an unrepentant aristocrat, declared a Former Person, and sentenced to house arrest. He was moved from his suite to an attic storage room and told that if he stepped out of the hotel, he would be shot.

Believing that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them,” the Count determines to make the best of his.

There are worse places to be confined than a Grand Hotel. But confinement is confinement, and it strains the count at times. In one of the best pieces of “showing, not telling” I’ve seen, the Count has been inside for about a year when he feels a blast of cold air in a hallway. Searching for its origin, the Count finds himself in the coat room, where someone has just come in in from outside. He also notices the smell of wood smoke on the coat someone has just left behind. The coat room girl finds him a few minutes later, holding the sleeve of the coat. It was such a poignant moment, made all the more so by the fact that Towles didn’t explain, “He missed the outdoors and the smell of winter and wood smoke.” He left the scene as is for the reader to infer why the Count lingered, holding the coat sleeve.

The Count hits a low point, and I love the scene that switches his thinking. But mostly the book involves the Count’s activities, friendships with members of the staff, interactions with a nine-year-old girl, a famous actress, an American journalist, Russian officials, and various others who come through the hotel.

We learn what kind of man the Count is. He’s in his thirties at the beginning of the novel and his sixties by the end. At first he is quite charming but almost flippant. He’s almost unfailingly polite. As he tells a little girl who asks about the rules for being a princess, “Manners are not like bonbons, Nina. You may not choose the ones that suit you best; and you certainly cannot put the half-bitten ones back in the box.” He’s not without thought for others, as we see in remembrances of getting his grandmother out of the country before his arrest, his care of his sister, his sacrifice for a friend. But we also see how he grows as a person over the course of the novel.

The narrator also lets us in on what’s going on in the country and how it affects the Count even inside a hotel. This was a time of great change in Russia, after the revolution, spanning two world wars, famines, the Stalinist era, and more.

A few of my favorite quotes:

“A king fortifies himself with a castle,” observed the Count, “a gentleman with a desk.”

But imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness.

It was, without question, the smallest room that he had occupied in his life; yet somehow, within those four walls the world had come and gone.

I also enjoyed a section where he talked about names in Russian novels—how difficult they are, and how several names can be used for the same person with nicknames, honorifics, etc. I smiled because I had thought that very thing when reading Russian novels.

This is not an action-packed, plot-driven novel (though the action picks up and becomes quite suspenseful in the last few chapters). It’s more of a quiet, thoughtful book. This doesn’t often happen, but I didn’t start another book for more than a day after finishing this one, just to sit with my thoughts about it a little longer.

Towles said he got the idea for the novel when, traveling for business overseas. He noticed some of the same people every time he visited certain hotels. He wondered if some of them lived in the hotel, and that started his thoughts around a character who did live at a hotel, but not by his own choice.

I loved Towles’ writing. One thing I especially liked was the way he took details of a previous scene that I thought was finished and brought them up again later. For instance, in an early scene, the Count has some fennel sent to his friend, the chef at the hotel restaurant. I got the idea that fennel was hard to come by, and the Count was a nice guy to get some, and he still had the connections to do so. But then the purpose for the fennel comes out in a much later chapter, a delightful surprise.

I normally avoid most current secular fiction because there’s almost always some language issues and/or sex scenes. I don’t recall many language problems–a couple of “damns,” one instance of taking the Lord’s name in vain (though the author sometimes told us someone did without subjecting us to the sound of it). There are a couple of sexual encounters, but no steamy, explicit scenes.

I enjoyed going down the rabbit hole of Towles’ web site for the book. He shares some information on the Metropol (a real hotel) and its history, interviews about the book, some questions he receives and their answers, a reader’s guide (though I’d advise not reading the latter two until after you’ve finished the book to avoid spoilers). The structure of the novel hadn’t dawned on me until I read the guide Towels’ mention of it n the guide: the first few chapters cover a day, then a couple of days, gradually increasing. Tthe middle covers years, and the last chapters hone in on days again. I was also surprised that one of the most-often asked questions concerned who the person was in the last scene with the Count. That person was always described throughout the novel with a particular adjective that’s also used at the end, so that was no mystery to me. I enjoyed learning what some of the scenes were based on.

I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Nicholas Guy Smith. He did a wonderful job giving each character distinctive  and apt voices.

Have you read A Gentleman in Moscow? What did you think?

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

12 thoughts on “Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

  1. I found this book in my son’s room after he returned to Jakarta following his visit home at Christmas. I wasn’t sure if he’d want to hang on to it so I put it aside — clearly he left it here because he didn’t have space in his luggage for the return trip. I started in on it a few weeks ago. I haven’t finished it because of deadlines and obligations, but I have had the scenes from the Metropol in my mind ever since, and for now, it’s the only fiction title in my to-be-continued stack, waiting for a lull. Thanks for the review and the motivation to make that lull happen this week.

  2. This book read like music..towards the end I slowed down a bit just to make it last longer..his writing was so superb. My favorite part was up on the roof..just beautiful.

  3. As you know, I *did* just read and enjoy it as well! Thank you for the author’s site; I’ll enjoy that as well. How interesting that his interest was piqued by noticing the same people at some hotels he visited. As I read your review, your description of his confinement in the hotel reminded me of our current situation in the US — although it’s not “suffering” by any means to be mainly confined to our homes, it still is … um, confining. It’s not what we’re used to and it takes some adjusting, both physically and mentally, to get used to staying in one place. Like you, I too thought the author did an excellent job and I loved the way he’d start with an idea, seemingly abandon it, and then pick it up and tie it in neatly later in the chapter or book. Enjoyed the book; enjoyed your review!

    • I enjoyed your review as well, and it was fun that we were reading it at the same time. I thought about the comparisons with our situation, too, when I started the book. I remember thinking, “We have so much to entertain ourselves with, it shouldn’t seem a hardship.” But it does have difficult aspects.

  4. Pingback: End-of-August Reflections | Stray Thoughts

  5. This book sounds very good. I’ve had some to follow me back on WordPress but I don’t do anything with my account on here. I never could figure it out. I have a blog on Blogspot though and would love a follow if you would.
    Thanks for sharing your post.

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