Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

Last month, I caved to a long-standing desire to subscribe to the Book of the Month Club. I don’t recall where I’d first caught wind of the subscription service, but once I’d encountered the website, my eyes assumed a maniacal gleam and my mouth watered at the mere thought of becoming a member of a society that not only appreciated books as much as I do, but also would ship books to my house each month. A truly magnificent discovery!

Naturally, self-control was not my reality the day that I made my first BOTM selection; in addition to my subscription-included pick, I also ended up with two additional novels from previous months.

I picked up A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles as my first BOTM read, my curiosity piqued by the promising storyline of an aristocrat sentenced to “house arrest” in an upscale hotel in early 1920s Russia.

Towles introduces readers to Count Alexander Rostov, wealthy four-year resident of The Metropol, situated in downtown Moscow near the Kremlin. Rostov, we quickly discover, is two things: a gentleman, as the title hints, and an enemy of the state. Due to shifting political forces in Russia, Rostov’s wealth and upbringing make him a target for the Bolshevik uprising; and after the penning of a poem with undercurrents of political unrest, the Count is tried by the court and sent back to his hotel — for life.

The Count must quickly learn to adapt to the confines of his new life within the four walls of The Metropol. His relationships with hotel staff are transposed into something more like friendship over the course of a few years, and he even befriends a cheeky young patron of the building who teaches him a few things about adventure, the limitations of physical confines (or lack thereof), and friendship.

One drawback of the story is its verbose nature. I was a fervent reader of Dickens and Tolstoy in high school and college, but since becoming a teacher, my time for texts of that verbal complexity is severely impeded by the demands of my job. (Read: I’m basically never able to completely unplug from my career — my mind never stops spinning.) It was a challenge, initially, to learn again how to focus intently on a text and appreciate the complexity of its language. After the story’s plot picked up, though, I was drawn into the Count’s life and quickly grew familiar with Towles’ prose.

The verdict: Towles creates a remarkably endearing character for readers to come to know and love, and without leaving the walls of The Metropol for decades, manages to craft a universe of wonder. A bit verbose at times, this novel is best savored over the course of several days, rather than inhaled in one sitting. The extremely satisfying (and not altogether expected) conclusion is a cherry on top of a most decadent bookish sundae.

Rating4.5/5 stars — highly recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction and heartwarming tales of the persistence of the human spirit and dedication to a life well-lived.

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