Book of the Year 2017: A Gentleman in Moscow

moscow

Viking, 2017.

I am not sure that I have ever before read a novel two times in one year, but in 2017 I read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles twice. When I finished it the first time, I wanted to flip back to the beginning and start over. Eleven months later I did. Reading it was like peering in to the back of a watch or a clock and looking on with a sense of wonder at the inner workings, intricately detailed and perfectly orchestrated. Very rarely does a book capture my imagination as this one did and I was loath to say good-bye to the world within.

A Gentleman in Moscow could more accurately be titled “A Former Person in a Hotel.” Before you start thinking that you don’t want to read a book that takes place entirely inside one building, let’s take a moment to think about how nice it sounds to stay in a hotel for a long time—if you’re like me. I’m one of those weird people that wants to extend my hotel stay indefinitely while everyone else is ready to be a homebody. I’m happy to not cook and clean up after myself or run to the grocery store. The only mental stress comes from deciding what to eat next. But A Gentleman in Moscow asks, what if I were forced to live my entire life in a hotel—to make it my world?

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the esteemed Gentleman of the title, is, after two readings, my hero. Alexander had the life—a country estate, money to travel the glittering Western world, friendship, and youthful cheerfulness. But at the end of the Russian Revolution, he found himself on the wrong side of Russian history. As all revolutions tend to do, the Russian Revolution found Alexander to have far too much elite about him. In 1922 when his fellow aristocrats were not-so-quietly being eliminated, Alexander was saved from death by a poem he had written years before that just hinted that he might have a revolutionary mind. Thus at age 33 he was sentenced to life imprisonment in his hotel, the Moscow Metropol.

At this point, A Gentleman in Moscow could have become a dark, psychological novel about the effects of being the last of one’s kind, alienated, disoriented, useless, and invisible. But it doesn’t. It is, instead, joyfully humorous, ironic, and charming, for Alexander does not succumb. He proclaims as his maxim, “A man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them.”

So what is A Gentleman in Moscow about? It’s about taking the reins of life and never giving them (the enemies and the naysayers) the satisfaction. Alexander reinvents himself—not just once—but two, three, four times. Herein lies Alexander’s heroic mental toughness. He never lets himself languish for long if he can do something to make his life better. He alternately lives the life of a gentleman, a teacher, a waiter, a spy, and his greatest role—a father.

Half the time, Alexander’s reinvention comes at the hands of small, precocious girls, for, just when he becomes comfortable, life interrupts. As he says, “Life is every bit as devious as death,” and pops up just when you need it. Nina and Sofia, the two little girls who bring life to the Metropol, repeatedly inject youth and a breath of the fresh outside air into Alexander’s insulated world.

Moscow, Russia, Europe, and the farther world spin outside the Metropol. Regimes come and go, wars begin and end, philosophies wax and wane. Alexander remains. He ages, he learns. “If we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity—a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.” We suddenly start to think that the punishment Alexander was given saved his life, many times over. Sometimes, we learn, the worst things that happen can really be turned into the best things. By the end of our magical stay in the Metropol, our Count is the axis on which the hotel spins.

I feel inadequate in reviewing a book I enjoyed so much, but if I can motivate you to read it for yourself, then I suppose I have done my job. It’s magical voice will speak for itself. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and it will make you angry. But most of all, I think it will carry you away into a miniature world where, “towering over this tableau, peering down through the glass ceiling, [is] a gentleman of sixty with his hand on the crank,” preparing to set your imagination in motion.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5