In Amor Towles’ new novel, the dreary landscape of the former Soviet Union is transformed into a fairy tale land of candlelit dinners, hidden treasures, love struck movie stars, and precocious little girls.
It all takes place within the walls of Moscow’s famed Metropol, one of the world’s grand luxury hotels, where, in 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. And what a life it turns out to be.
As a 33-year-old nobleman bent on a life of idleness, Count Rostov has no place in the newly formed Workers’ Republic. Yet when called before one of the long-initialed commissariats, it is decided to spare his life. Instead of standing him up against a firing wall, Rostov is exiled to his hotel—but not to his own palatial suite of rooms. Instead, he is relegated to the dingy, cramped quarters of the hotel attic.
What would have crumpled a lesser soul becomes a challenge for Rostov: “a man must master his circumstances or be mastered by them,” he tells himself. “Yes!” we agree. “How stoic!” we think. But at some level, Rostov knows better, and so do we.
After all, Rostov is Russian, he loves Russian literature, and the 19th-century-styled narrator of his story is intent on channeling Tolstoy. What we know about Tolstoy, and Russian novels in general, is the adherence to the accident of fate. One does not master one’s circumstances, Russian books tell us, because fate will intervene. In this, A Gentleman in Moscow is no exception.
Lest the mention of Russian novels frighten you off, don’t run away. Towles’ prose is playful and his story lighthearted, filled with camaraderie, loyalty, love, and multiple adventures in back staircases, hallways, and hidden cellar rooms. Even the brutality of Stalin’s rule is shut out of this enchanted world. We learn of his Five-Year plans, mass starvation, purges, even World War II only at a distance—through the asides of our highly intrusive narrator or in the person of Rostov’s oldest friend, Mishka.
Given that Towles is a screenwriter, some of the prose has the distinct hint of a film-in-the-making—Scene 1: a calamitous dog-and-cat chase in the lobby. Scene 2: a goose on the loose in a hallway. Scene 3: a six-foot Count trapped in a bedroom armoire—all of which elicits a few chuckles.
In addition, plot lines are neatly stitched together: Towles makes use of Chekhov’s famous maxim: if a gun appears in the first act, it must be fired in the second. There are plenty of “guns” that show up a second, even third, time … to be re-purposed in a later chapter. In other words, the pages are rife with foreshadowing of future events. One can have fun, in fact, thumbing back through the book to retrace their lineage.
All told, A Gentleman in Moscow offers an enjoyable romp, with some Tolstoy-lite philosophical meanderings mixed in for a bit of heft. Best of all, Towle has given us a cast of endearing characters, making it hard to close the door on them as I closed the cover. Truly, I hated checking out of the Metropol—a magical world in Amor Towles’ hands.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.