On 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.
Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. But instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.
Can a life without luxury be the richest of all?
‘If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.’
This book was recommended to me a while ago by a friend from university, and when I finally got round to reading it last week I did not expect to love it as much as I did. It’s full of charm, humour, love, friendship and mouth-watering descriptions of food, and it perfectly incorporates the turbulent history of 20th century Russia. A Gentleman in Moscow was originally published in 2016 (5 years ago! Can you believe it? Sometimes I think we still are in 2016), but as a result of the pandemic it has had a resurgence. But, although relatable in some aspects, the novel is situated firmly in the past. Confined to the Metropol Hotel in Moscow between the years 1922 and 1954, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov watches from the sidelines as Russia is transformed from an imperial state into a global superpower. As a “former person” – that is, an aristocrat – the Count must adapt to these changing circumstances in order to survive, and with the help of various friends that is exactly what he does. I’m sure many in lockdown can empathise with the Count’s sentence of house arrest!
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this book are its characters, particularly Count Rostov, on whom the narrative is built. Endearing and dynamic, the Count is self-assured and intelligent, and throughout the novel we watch as he develops close friendships with various individuals that either work or reside in the hotel. I especially loved reading about the Count’s relationship with his adopted daughter Sofia, and their games of Zut (which they invented) in the Boyarsky. It was a heartwarming and touching addition to a wonderful novel.
Initially, as most of the events in the book are set in the Metropol Hotel and written from the limited perspective of the Count, I was worried that the narrative would lose momentum halfway through. Luckily, this was not the case! From beginning to end I was transfixed. Certainly, the world that Amor Towles creates within A Gentleman in Moscow extends far beyond the confines of the hotel. Through various anecdotes from the Count’s past, the reader is transported to other parts of Russia and the wider world. And, as mentioned earlier, bits of 20th century history are ingeniously incorporated into the narrative, brining more variety and colour to the story. The pace never felt slow or rushed, and there was a perfect blend of tension and ease throughout the book. All in all, I must seriously commend Towles on his brilliant prose, it is undoubtedly an excellent addition to the genre of historical fiction. Towles’ research is apparent in the extensive level of detail and knowledge on display. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into this book, but he makes it appear effortless and simple. It’s no wonder that this was the New York Times bestseller!
I will end with my favourite quote from A Gentleman in Moscow which I know my mom (who can’t start a day without a cup of coffee) and other coffee-lovers will greatly appreciate:
‘When the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists – the aroma of freshly ground coffee. In that instant, darkness was separated from light, the waters from the lands, and the heavens from the earth.’
Published: 6th September 2016 by Viking
Genre: Historical Fiction
Format Read: Paperback
Narration Style: Third person past tense