Historical fiction novel set in Russia about a fallen aristocrat detained in a hotel
After recently moving house and being faced with the equal parts exciting and horrifying task of arranging my bookshelves, it has occurred to me (again) that I have too many unread books. I have committed to the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, but to be honest, it hasn’t been going especially well! With quite of lot of life stuff happening recently I’m just very far behind. However, with my bookshelf freshly organised, I decided to make a genuine start on tackling some of those piles. This book I bought some time ago after several people recommended it to me. It is a beautiful hardcover edition with gold foil which is simply radiant when the light catches it just so. Now, this book is set in historical Russia and given the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, I did initially feel uncomfortable about the prospect of reading it. However, I looked up the the author and discovered he is American and decided to go ahead.
“A Gentleman in Mosco” by Amor Towles is a historical fiction novel set in Moscow, Russia in 1922. The story is about Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat in his early 30s, who is being interrogated in the Kremlin. Shortly afterwards he is escorted to the hotel he is residing in, the Hotel Metropol, but instead of returning to his suite, he is moved into a tiny attic room and advised that he is not to leave the hotel. Ever. Irreverent and charming, the Count initially makes the most of things and tries to follow his typical routine: fancy meals, frequent haircuts, scintillating conversation. However, as the years pass by, holding on to the past begins to weight the Count down. If he is to survive life in the hotel, the Count realises that he must work hard to find new meaning in his life.
This was a beautifully written and elegantly structured book. Towles shows a real knack for keeping on top of the many threads woven through this story, bringing certain threads back to the forefront with exception timing. However, even stronger than this was the character development. Towles manages to capture a lifetime within a relatively short number of pages, showing the high points and the low points of a unusual life lived. I really enjoyed the relationships that the Count develops with staff and guests at the hotel over time. Rather than being static, the hotel changes over time and the people change with it. I especially liked the Triumvirate and how as the Count grows closer to his friends Andrey and Emile, they are shown to the reader in more and more close detail. It is interesting that this book was published in 2016 because I think it would have been a very relatable book to read during lockdown.
I thought it was admirable that Towles titled each chapter with a word or phrase beginning with the letter A, but the very last chapter, An Anon, I actually felt was superfluous. I had been along for the ride the entire way, almost every chapter had hit the mark, but the little coda just didn’t quite land. I think I would have preferred a little more ambiguity at the end. Also (and this is me being utterly pedantic against American English) I was a little annoyed that so much care was taken with describing dining etiquette, yet Towles used the term entrée to refer to the main course of a meal, rather than the French (and rest of the English-speaking world’s) usage to refer to starters. This could well have been an American publication choice, but it still irritated me.
Nevertheless, this is a deeply emotional and well-considered book that asks us how, when our world becomes very small, we can fill it with little yet meaningful things.