Picture Eloise, the eponymous star of the beloved children’s book: the tiny whirlwind who flits through the Plaza Hotel with panache and a running commentary. If Eloise were a man in Stalinist Russia, you’ve got the premise of A Gentleman in Moscow.
A Gentleman in Moscow
If A Gentleman in Moscow is a harbinger of new titles coming this fall season, we are in luck.
Written by Amor Towles, author of the well received Rules of Civility, A Gentleman in Moscow is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a former distinguished aristocrat now designated a “Former Person” by a Bolshevik tribunal and sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, a grand hotel across from the Kremlin, for the crime of writing incendiary poetry.
Booted from the luxury suite he has lived in, he is resigned to live in a storage room in the attic and allowed only a few furnishings.
With aplomb, the Count makes the best of his plight and immerses himself in the life of this fancy hotel. Enter in a cast of quirky and delightful characters, including a serious nine year-old girl whose father is a member of the Party, the French maitre’ d, a sultry movie star, the seamstress who teaches him how to sew on a button, the handyman who keeps a beehive on the roof, and more.
The novel spans 30 years, from 1922 to 1952, some of the most tumultuous years of Russian history. Wars rage, famines take place, thousands of citizens are banished to Siberia, but the Count only knows of this through reading his morning paper and speaking with guests of the hotel.
The Count is a Renaissance man, one who savors haute cuisine as passionately as he admires the works of Chekhov and Tchaikovsky. Thus, he enjoys discussing the appropriate wines to pair with food, ancient philosophies, American movies, and any other aspect of culture.
It is due to Towles’ genius that a riveting, funny and completely charming story can take place within the bounds of four walls — in Stalinist Russia.
His writing is so masterful, so clever, it is tempting to highlight passages of exceptional creativity. For example, the Count is attempting to move a mattress here:
When he bent over to life the mattress from the bedsprings, it crossed its arms, held its breadth, and refused to budge. When he managed to get it upright, it immediately flopped over his head, nearly knocking him off his feet. And when he’d finally dragged it down the hall and flumped it in his room, it spread out its limbs, claiming every spare inch of the floor.
And here, the Count overhears the waiter’s recommendation for a wine to a couple sitting at the table next to him and is aghast at what he hears.
The Rioja? Now there was a wine that would clash with the stew as Achilles clashed with Hector. It would slay the dish with a blow to the head and drag it behind its chariot until it tested the fortitude of every man in Troy.
Last week I finished a wonderful book that had me longing for another that would grab me the same way. Well, I found it here, and then some. A Gentleman in Moscow is hands down my favorite book of the year and will likely retain a spot on my all time favorite list.
Bravo, Mr. Towles!
One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of A Gentleman in Moscow. Please leave a comment and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.
I received a copy of A Gentleman in Moscow from Viking for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.