Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – a glimpse of Soviet Russia through the eyes of a wonderful character

This is one of those books that is so entertaining, charming and moving that you know when you’ve reached the last page it’s going to take some time to recover. I was so immersed in A Gentleman in Moscow, it completely took over my life. I almost wanted to go back to page one and read it again.

The story chronicles the period the Former Person, Count Alexander Rostov, spends in house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. From his sentencing in 1922 he is to be housed in a small attic room – quite a change from his normal luxurious suite on the second floor – and as “an unrepentant aristocrat”, should he ever leave the hotel, he is to be shot on sight.

Having learned from his godfather, that a man must master his circumstances to avoid letting them master him, the Count sets about making a new life for himself. His good manners, charm and gift for storytelling stand him in good stead. So does his infinite knowledge of how things are done. Fortunately the Metropol is the perfect setting. Both the hotel and the Count present echoes of the past, as the changing regime of Soviet Russia builds itself around them.

Decades pass as the Count makes friends among the guests, including Anna, a glamorous actress, a little girl called Nina and the staff of the hotel – Marina, the seamstress from whom he learns how to sew on a button, Emile the chef who can do anything with his knife and Andrey, a former circus juggler turned maitre d’. 

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka – and at one time I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me the most.”

This is a book of small incidents, anecdotes and the marvellously good company that the Count offers the reader. Cultured and well-read, it’s a feast – mirrored by the delicious sounding meals that Emile produces in his kitchen. But the story builds to a brilliant finish, and you have the sense that all the small stories and incidents reconnect with other parts of the book, that it’s all important. In the background, people vanish without a trace, or have their lives changed for ever by the politics of Stalin. Both the Count and the Metropol must adapt, rethink and regroup to survive.

This is such a wonderful book – I wanted to rush through it to see what happened but at the same time lingering over each scene, savouring every morsel. I could put it on my list of best reads for 2022, but it’s certain to be on my best books for the decade as well. And it doesn’t surprise me that there’s talk of a screen adaptation, due to star Ewan MacGregor. I’ll be keen to see the splendour of the Metropol in vivid technicolour. The book gets easy five out of five from me. 

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