A propensity for elegant sentences, wonderful characters and inventive storytelling… This is everything a novel should be: charming, witty, poetic and generous, An absolute delight. –Mail on Sunday
Living up to expectations
By Roger Childs
This novel was lent to me by a friend who knows my tastes. I had never heard of the author Amor Towles, however, the 19 review quotes were ecstatic. I try not to let the effusive comments which publishers frequently splatter in the first few pages of books cloud my judgement – the proof is always in the reading. However, with A Gentleman in Moscow they were not wrong.
The main character is indeed the “gentleman” — a real gent – Count Alexander Illyich Rostov – who returns as a young man to Russia after World War One. His is highly intelligent, witty, cultured and personable with impeccable manners. He lives in a luxury suite at Hotel Metropol in Moscow. However, the Communist government has no time for aristocrats and take him to court in June 1922 and he is put under permanent “hotel arrest”. So it is out of the spacious suite and into a small attic room. He takes some furniture with him including a table which conveniently has legs full of gold coins.
Over the next thirty plus years as Russia passes through tumultuous times, Rostov lives his life in the hotel and develops excellent, mutually satisfying relationships with the restaurant and kitchen staff who have exacting standards, and Maria a young girl who is the daughter of a widowed Ukranian official. All the characters are beautifully drawn including an actress who lives in the hotel and enjoys the Count’s company both in the restaurant and at her suite.
As an adult Maria marries and with her husband heads off to work on a collectivization project in central Russia. She leaves behind her small daughter Sofia in the Count’s care. Maria is never heard of again and Alexander adopts the girl as his daughter. The two enjoy each other’s company and love playing games in which the Count is occasionally outwitted!
The ebb and flow of Russian history
Obviously the action centres on what’s happening in the hotel, however Towles does provide lengthy, but highly interesting, footnotes about what is going on in Russia as the decades pass. From time to time government leaders and officials dine at the Metropol which has the best restaurant in Moscow.
Near the end of the book, now into the 1950s with Krushchev about to ascend to the top of the presidium, the entire upper echelon of the government and civil service dines in a large suite under the eye of head waiter Alexander Illyich Rostov.
This a book of 462 pages with small print, but Towles never flags in telling the fascinating story of Rostov and his friends. There are wonderful observations about cuisine, customs, furniture, procedures and of course the people who pass through the hotel, bar and restaurant – journalists, politicians, diplomats, spies and tourists.
The author’s style is elegant, witty and occasionally humorous, and his description is often delightful. He has all the flair of the very best novelists and this is exhibited with great skill through idiom and imagery, simile and metaphor, nuance and perception. But as I entered the four hundreds (pages), I wondered whether this master story teller could produce an ending worthy of his remarkable story?
Yes indeed! Sofia grows up to become an accomplished pianist and travels with a Russian orchestra to Paris… I will say no more.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is one of the finest books I have ever read; it is not just a novel, it is literature. Very highly recommended.