“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles is one of those beautiful books that, when you are finished, make you want to clutch it to your chest and close your eyes and sigh.
The simple plot belies its profundity. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov lives under house arrest in Moscow at the Hotel Metropol. He has been sentenced there by the Bolsheviks after the revolution for being, in sum, an ”unrepentant aristocrat.” Rostov makes his life at the Hotel as a “Former Person.”
Rostov’s life is isolated and routine. He has his regular meal, his regular drink, and his regular haircut. In the background is the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, World War Two, and Stalin. He sees things vicariously through guests at the hotel and meetings that take place in its ballrooms. Eventually becoming the headwaiter in the hotel, he is expected to eavesdrop so that he will know the exact second someone needs his water glass refilled.
Because of the limited venue, there is very little direct action that takes place. However, there is so much below this apparently still surface. We see the revolutionary idealists and the ones who just want power. We see love and heartbreak. In some subtle ways, though I don’t think the word is mentioned even once, it is an ode to capitalism. (Interestingly, I found out later that writing is a bit of a second career for Towles – he worked in high finance on Wall Street.)
It’s hard to sum this up in a small review. Rostov is wistful and nostalgic, but not at all resentful of his limited life. He makes the most of it and grows into a wise and resourceful man with friends all over the world. It illustrates mindfulness in its best form – how days’ worth of joy can be found in an envelope of saffron, and how simple word games can forge relationships. Be where you are, and you don’t worry about where you are not. Until you can get there.
The writing is beautiful and full of profound, wise little lines that will make you want to pull out a pencil and underline them. The characters are three dimensional and finely drawn. This is a bit heavy for a beach read, but a perfect book to read on a rainy afternoon with a mug of tea or glass of wine. (Just make sure the label stays on the bottle. You’ll understand what I mean after you read the book.)