Several times in Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, Count Alexander Rostov claims or is declared by other characters to be the luckiest man in the Soviet Union. Given that Rostov lives through the most turbulent and deadly years of the Soviet regime, being under house arrest in the best hotel in Moscow is not the worst fate for the former aristocrat. Rostov escapes a death sentence for a popular, pro-Revolution poem he wrote years before. But the tribunal can’t just let a count go. So, on 21 June, 1922, Rostov is sentenced to life under house arrest at the Metropol Hotel. If he leaves, he will be arrested and executed. A Gentleman in Moscow takes us through the next thirty years of Rostov’s life at the Metropol.
For a novel set during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s in the Soviet Union, A Gentleman of Moscow is a surprisingly light and humorous tale, reflecting the gentility of its protagonist. Rostov was raised to be, above all, a gentleman. He has impeccable manners and taste. He is always willing to be of service to any who ask. He’s educated, multilingual, and used to the finer things in life. Rostov also has a gentle humor that never seems to fade. The narrative is packed with witty, trenchant observations of the hotel’s inhabitants and employees. Of course he drives the more fanatical member of the Communist Party insane. Rostov’s nemesis, a waiter-turned-manager who informs for the various iterations of the KGB, is just waiting for the aristocrat to slip up so that he can get Rostov out of the Metropol. They spar, more or less politely, for thirty years.
Nor is A Gentleman of Moscow particularly tense or fast paced (at least until the its conclusion). This novel is very much the story of a man who fined himself living out his life in one large building. Boredom is his chief enemy. At the beginning of his sentence, Rostov decides to get around to all his father’s philosophy books, which he has always been meaning to read, only to find they are deathly dull. Instead, Rostov strikes out for the common areas of the hotel, where he meets nine-year-old Nina. His friendship with Nina, which leads to other friendships, helps give Rostov’s curtailed existence purpose once more.
Throughout the novel, Rostov and his friends have meandering discussions about Russian culture, the American psyche, the finer things, literature, and a host of other topics. What unites these disparate topics is the tension between how Russia used to be and how it is in the first half of the Soviet regime. Is it possible to preserve the best of the old world? Must everything be remade in the Communist image? How does a cultured man live in an age of deprivation and betrayal? These conversations and questions keep the novel grounded. If it were only a comedy of manners that happened to be set between 1922 and 1954, I don’t think I could have taken the book seriously enough to finish it.
By the end, once I adjusted to the slow pace, I adored A Gentleman in Moscow, chiefly because of the protagonist. Rostov is utterly charming and genuine. It was a pleasure to see him preserve a little bit of the best of old Russia in the heart of the Soviet empire and match wits with his nemesis.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 6 September 2016.