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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW By Amor Towles 462 pp. Viking. $27.

Beyond the door of the luxurious ­Hotel Metropol lies Theater Square and the rest of Moscow, and beyond its city limits the tumultuous landscape of 20th-century Russia. The year 1922 is a good starting point for a Russian epic, but for the purposes of his sly and winning second ­novel, Amor Towles forgoes descriptions of icy roads and wintry dachas and instead retreats into the warm hotel lobby. The Metropol, with its customs and routines, is a world unto itself.

For years, its florist adhered to the code of polite society and knew “which flower to send when one has been late; when one has spoken out of turn.” The barbershop remained a kind of Switzerland, “a land of optimism, precision and political neutrality.” As post-revolution scarcity set in, the chef of the upscale Boyarsky restaurant worked magic with cornmeal, cauliflower and cabbage, while the Shalyapin bar offered candlelight and dark corners so Bolshoi dancers could sneak a postperformance drink. In the lobby, politicians whispered and movie starlets swanned across the floor, dragging recalcitrant borzois on their leashes.

Towles’s novel spans a number of difficult decades, but no Bolshevik, Stalinist or bureaucrat can dampen the Metropol’s life; World War II only briefly forces a pause. A great hotel is eternal, and the ­tidal movement of individuals and ideas into its lounges and ballrooms is a necessity for one longtime resident. He’s not difficult to spot: a man who enacts a set of rituals and routines, grooming and dining, conversing and brandy-drinking, before ascending each night to his room on the sixth floor, which has barely enough space for his Louis XVI desk and ebony elephant lamps.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov — a member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt — was already ensconced in luxury in Suite 317 when he was sentenced to house arrest in a 1922 trial, condemned for writing a poem. Saved from a bullet to the head or exile in Siberia because he was deemed a hero of the pre-revolutionary cause, he has been forcefully installed on a new floor. But Rostov is an optimist: The cramped room will at the very least keep him away from the Bolsheviks below, clacking out directives on their typewriters. He bounces on the bedsprings and observes that they’re creaking in G sharp. When he bangs his head on the slope of the low ceiling, he announces: “Just so.”

Rostov is an aesthete, an intellectual who will maintain his resolve by committing to the business of practicalities. Yet even with this aim, the walls begin to close in. As he climbs the 110 steps to his room, he can’t wait to descend them again; he has begun, early on in his confinement, to be “threatened by a sense of ennui — that dreaded mire of the human emotions.”

What is a cultured man to do? Suicide is an obvious choice. (Just so!) But the Metropol won’t let him simply drop and splatter from its roof. Towles has an educational scheme for his protagonist: If the hotel contains the world, Towles assiduously offers pleasures and lessons, room by room, as a reborn Rostov bears witness to his era.

Solzhenitsyn this is not. The frost gathers outside, but the book proceeds with intentional lightness. The tone is generally not far removed from the Fitzgeraldian tributes of Towles’s first novel, “Rules of Civility.” The book is narrated not by Rostov but by a hovering third person, sporting what seems to be a permanently arched eyebrow, who occasionally ­lapses into aristocratic fussiness. Wonder abounds. Secret panels open. A former juggler reaches out to grab a falling torte just in time. One-eyed cats look away at crucial moments. Although its style is never overbearing, the Metropol is imbued with a sense of idiosyncratic wonder. Listen closely and you might hear a Wes Anderson soundtrack playing down the hall. We’re not in the Grand Budapest, but more than once I imagined F. Murray Abraham narrating a long, panning shot.

What of the Russia that lies beyond? When he stops pacing the floor, Rostov’s anxious poet friend, Mishka, tells of his battles against censorship and hints that Rostov’s confinement might ultimately be for the best, arguing that their country’s great contribution to the world (at least one of them) is destruction: “For as a people, we Russians have proven unusually adept at destroying that which we have created.” Let us concede, our narrator dryly points out, that the early 1930s in Russia were unkind.

Mishka is one of many walk-ins who will tell of Russia’s condition and change Rostov’s static life. The movie star last seen dragging her barking borzois offers up for study the constellation of beauty marks on her back. Americans flit through, dispensing candy, cigarettes and opportunities. The most important introduction is to a young girl named Nina, who has a ripe sense of curiosity and a skeleton key that will allow her into any room, which is how Rostov splits his pants while contorting on the balcony as a Bolshevik assembly argues agenda points in the ballroom below. Zeligs don’t only have to appear in the frame of a newsreel. Rostov is always nudging up to history, clinking glasses with foreign diplomats and discussing films with Kremlin operators. Khrushchev makes an appearance.

But comrades must work, so the gentleman becomes a waiter. How important is good service? Even as a youngster on the estate in Nizhny Novgorod, he understood the power of a seating arrangement: “In fact, if Paris had not been seated next to Helen when he dined in the court of ­Menelaus, there never would have been a Trojan War.” In the era of jockeying ­Soviet apparatchiks, it’s a skill Rostov can repurpose. Proper manners, he points out, always have their place. “Does a banquet really need an asparagus server?” Nina asks at one point. “Does an orchestra need a bassoon?” is Rostov’s reply.

As Nina grows up, her fervency and love of knowledge are transferred from the science experiments she conducts in the ballroom to the diktats of the party. At the beginning of the 1930s, Rostov catches sight of her in the lobby among a few adoring male comrades, about to leave with some cadres of the local Komsomol to help collectivize the provinces. She is dazzling, then gone. As the purges continue, Rostov becomes the recipient of a gift from Nina even more precious than her skeleton key. He handles the situation, and all other situations, with capability and aplomb.

What happens when a novel centers on a character so capable, so witty and at ease in the world, even as that world convulses around him? Rostov has a portrait of his long-dead sister on the wall of his room, so it’s evident his life is anchored in pain — Russia is pain — but he remains untouchable, built to outwit the system. Part of the problem is that Towles repeatedly invokes the tortured, challenged, hand-wringing, deeply human characters of Russian literature. In contrast, Rostov seems destined always to succeed.

Towles is a craftsman. What saves the book is the gorgeous sleight of hand that draws it to a satisfying end, and the way he chooses themes that run deeper than mere sociopolitical commentary: parental duty, friendship, romance, the call of home. Human beings, after all, “deserve not only our consideration but our reconsideration” — even those from the leisured class. Who will save Rostov from the intrusions of the state if not the ­seamstresses, chefs, bartenders and doormen? In the end, ­Towles’s greatest narrative effect is not the moments of wonder and synchronicity but the generous transformation of these peripheral workers, over the course of ­decades, into confidants, equals and, finally, friends. With them around, a life sentence in these gilded halls might make Rostov the luckiest man in Russia.

The count “found political discourse of any persuasion to be tedious.” Bolsheviks are a bore, getting in colloquiums and congresses to “levy complaints, and generally clamor about the world’s oldest problems in its newest nomenclature.” But even the gray Soviet world melts inside the golden warmth of the Metropol. The transformation is what’s important. Rostov’s battles are less political and more concerned with the fight against any gradual diminishment of pleasure.

At one point, he learns that the existence of a wine list, a monument to the privilege of nobility, runs counter to the ideals of the revolution. Thus the 100,000 bottles in the Metropol’s cellar have had their labels removed, supposedly rendering them blissfully equal. No matter. Our accomplished gentleman will overcome. Down in the cellar, his talented fingers can still feel the telltale embossed ridges cut into a particularly important bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Book Reviews

'a gentleman in moscow' is a grand hotel adventure.

Annalisa Quinn

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

Hardcover, 448 pages |

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Count Alexander Rostov — recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt — is a "Former Person." Russia's new Soviet masters have sentenced him, improbably enough, to house arrest in Moscow's luxurious Metropol hotel, where he lives out his days decorating the dining room with his bon mots and dashing around like Eloise, if Eloise were set in a twee version of Stalinist Russia.

"The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n," Milton's charismatic Satan tells us — although the finest hotel in Moscow, with its restaurants and barber and elegant clientele, is a bit of a stretch for the fiery pits of damnation (or the snowdrifts of Siberia, for that matter). Anyways, thus confined, Rostov passes the decades making a whole world out of a hotel and the people in it — a precocious 9-year-old, a moody chef, the French maître d', and so on. He is not the king of infinite space, exactly, but he does live a full and rich life according to the principle that, "If one did not master one's circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them."

A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel that aims to charm, not be the axe for the frozen sea within us. And the result is a winning, stylish novel that keeps things easy. Flair is always the goal — Towles never lets anyone merely say goodbye when they could bid adieu, never puts a period where an exclamation point or dramatic ellipsis could stand. In his narratorial guise, he likes to drop in from the sky in dramatic asides, rhetorical questions, and cute self-referential footnotes.

And then there are the digressive flights. When a sinister hotel waiter (and Bolshevik stooge) suggests the wrong wine to accompany Latvian stew, the Count thinks, "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 ..." and so on.

Russia and all of its sufferings seems incidental to the plot — the book could have taken place in a grand hotel in Paris or London or New York just as easily. When the outside world makes itself felt, it's usually as an excuse for a charming caper of some kind: One episode has the Count, the chef, and the maitre d' conspire to scrounge the ingredients for a perfect bouillabaisse from war-depleted Moscow. After three years of plotting, they pull it off, and "with the very first spoonful one finds oneself transported to the port of Marseille — where the streets teem with sailors, thieves, and madonnas, with sunlight and summer, with languages and life."

All of the verbal excess, the gently funny mock-epic digressions, the small capers and cast of colorful characters, add up to something undeniably mannered but also undeniably pleasant. A Gentleman in Moscow is like a quipping, suavely charming dinner companion that you are also a little relieved to escape at the end of the meal.

Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.


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In addition to the sources listed below, A Gentleman in Moscow was reviewed, by NPR , the Seattle Times , the San Francisco Chronicle , and the Chicago Tribune .

In May, 2019, Microsoft founder Bill Gates recommended A Gentleman in Moscow  as one of five books worth reading over the coming summer. “ A Gentleman in Moscow is an amazing story because it manages to be a little bit of everything. There’s fantastical romance, politics, espionage, parenthood, and poetry. The book is technically historical fiction, but you’d be just as accurate calling it a thriller or a love story. Even if Russia isn’t on your must-visit list, I think everyone can enjoy Towles’s trip to Moscow this summer.” You can read his full review  here .
“How delightful that in an era as crude as ours this finely composed new novel by Amor Towles stretches out with old-World elegance. A Gentleman in Moscow offers a chance to sink back into a lost attitude of aristocracy — equal parts urbane and humane — just what we might expect from the author of that 2011 bestseller Rules of Civility . But if Towles’s story is an escape we crave, it is also, ironically, a story of imprisonment…” – Washington Post. Read the full review  here .
“Beyond the door of the luxurious ­Hotel Metropol lies Theater Square and the rest of Moscow, and beyond its city limits the tumultuous landscape of 20th-century Russia. The year 1922 is a good starting point for a Russian epic, but for the purposes of his sly and winning second ­novel, Amor Towles forgoes descriptions of icy roads and wintry dachas and instead retreats into the warm hotel lobby. The Metropol, with its customs and routines, is a world unto itself…”  – New York Times Book Review . Read the full review here .
“Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight…. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can’t begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind. A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles’ stylish debut, Rules of Civilit y (2011).” – Kirkus starred review. Read the full review here .
“House arrest has never been so charming as in Towles’s second novel, an engaging 30-year saga set almost entirely inside the Metropol, Moscow’s most luxurious hotel… Episodic, empathetic, and entertaining, Count Rostov’s long transformation occurs against a lightly sketched background of upheaval, repression, and war. Gently but dauntlessly, like his protagonist, Towles is determined to chart the course of the individual.” — Publisher’s Weekly. Read the full review here .
“In his remarkable first novel, the best-selling Rules of Civility , Towles etched 1930s New York in crystalline relief. Though set a world away in Moscow over the course of three decades, his latest polished literary foray into a bygone era is just as impressive…” — Booklist.

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A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel

Amor towles.

462 pages, Paperback

First published September 6, 2016

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To what end, he wondered, had the Divine created the stars in heaven to fill a man with feelings of inspiration one day and insignificance the next?
“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 most.”

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Adversity presents itself in many forms . . . if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.

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“ Prosecutor Vyshinsky: State your name. Rostov: Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt. Vyshinsky: You may have your titles; they are of no use to anyone else. But for the record, are you not Alexander Rostov, born in St. Petersberg, 24 October 1889? Rostov: I am he. Vyshinsky: Before we begin, I must say, I do not think that I have ever seen a jacket festooned with so many buttons. Rostov: Thank you. Vyshinsky: It was not meant as a compliment. Rostov: In that case, I demand satisfaction on the field of honour. [Laughter] Secretary Ignatov: Silence in the gallery.”

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“What matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”

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‘Tis a funny thing, reflected the Count as he stood ready to abandon his suite. From the earliest age we must learn to say good-bye to friends and family. We see our parents and siblings off at the station; we visit cousins, attend schools, join the regiment; we marry, or travel abroad. It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow by the shoulder and wishing him well…But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu . And if it were to? We wouldn’t welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity – all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance. The armoire, we are prone to recall, is the very one in which we hid as a boy; and it was these silver candelabra that lined our table on Christmas Eve; and it was with this handkerchief that she once dried her tears… Until we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion…But, of course, a thing is just a thing.
“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” [the Count] said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your 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 to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest conveniences…and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

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When I was a kid, I read a fiction book about inner workings of a 1950s New Orleans hotel - with the no-nonsense practicality named Hotel by Arthur Hailey. It was dry and strange and a bit too technical for a piece of fiction, but I found the inner life of a large fancy hotel fascinating (and still enjoyed it on the reread). And so I was immensely curious about A Gentleman in Moscow , set inside a hotel over a few decades — the book that promised lovely writing and philosophical asides, the bits that were missing from Hailey’s a bit dry offering.
“Raised in grand homes in cosmopolitan cities, educated in the liberal arts, graced with idle hours, and exposed to the finest things, though the Count and the American had been born ten years and four thousand miles apart, they had more in common with each other than they had with the majority of their own countrymen.”
“Who would have imagined,” he said, “when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.”
“Today, the dining room was nearly empty and the Count was being served by someone who appeared not only new to the Piazza, but new to the art of waiting. Tall and thin, with a narrow head and superior demeanor, he looked rather like a bishop that had been plucked from a chessboard. When the Count took his seat with a newspaper in hand—the international symbol of dining alone—the chap didn’t bother to clear the second setting; when the Count closed his menu and placed it beside his plate—the international symbol of readiness to order—the chap needed to be beckoned with a wave of the hand; and when the Count ordered the okroshka and filet of sole, the chap asked if he might like a glass of Sauterne. A perfect suggestion, no doubt, if only the Count had ordered foie gras!” The horror... Compared to this faux-pas, the Purges were a walk in the park.
“Since the beginning of storytelling, he explained, Death has called on the unwitting. In one tale or another, it arrives quietly in town and takes a room at an inn, or lurks in an alleyway, or lingers in the marketplace, surreptitiously. Then just when the hero has a moment of respite from his daily affairs, Death pays him a visit. This is all well and good, allowed the Count. But what is rarely related is the fact that Life is every bit as devious as Death. It too can wear a hooded coat. It too can slip into town, lurk in an alley, or wait in the back of a tavern.”
“Even men in the most trying of circumstances—like those lost at sea or confined to prison—will find the means to carefully account the passing of a year. Despite the fact that all the splendid modulations of the seasons and those colorful festivities that recur in the course of normal life have been replaced by a tyranny of indistinguishable days, the men in such situations will carve their 365 notches into a piece of wood or scratch them into the walls of their cell.” Compare your life to that in prison all you want, you are still rolling in luxury. Sir.

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A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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by Amor Towles ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 6, 2016

Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016


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Amor Towles To Publish New Novel This Fall


Duchess of Cornwall Launches New Book Club Season


by Pat Conroy ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 21, 1986

A flabby, fervid melodrama of a high-strung Southern family from Conroy ( The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline ), whose penchant for overwriting once again obscures a genuine talent. Tom Wingo is an unemployed South Carolinian football coach whose internist wife is having an affair with a pompous cardiac man. When he hears that his fierce, beautiful twin sister Savannah, a well-known New York poet, has once again attempted suicide, he escapes his present emasculation by flying north to meet Savannah's comely psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. Savannah, it turns out, is catatonic, and before the suicide attempt had completely assumed the identity of a dead friend—the implication being that she couldn't stand being a Wingo anymore. Susan (a shrink with a lot of time on her hands) says to Tom, "Will you stay in New York and tell me all you know?" and he does, for nearly 600 mostly-bloated pages of flashbacks depicting The Family Wingo of swampy Colleton County: a beautiful mother, a brutal shrimper father (the Great Santini alive and kicking), and Tom and Savannah's much-admired older brother, Luke. There are enough traumas here to fall an average-sized mental ward, but the biggie centers around Luke, who uses the skills learned as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam to fight a guerrilla war against the installation of a nuclear power plant in Colleton and is killed by the authorities. It's his death that precipitates the nervous breakdown that costs Tom his job, and Savannah, almost, her life. There may be a barely-glimpsed smaller novel buried in all this succotash (Tom's marriage and life as a football coach), but it's sadly overwhelmed by the book's clumsy central narrative device (flashback ad infinitum) and Conroy's pretentious prose style: ""There are no verdicts to childhood, only consequences, and the bright freight of memory. I speak now of the sun-struck, deeply lived-in days of my past.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1986

ISBN: 0553381547

Page Count: 686

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1986


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by Pat Conroy


Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.


by Kristin Hannah ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 3, 2015

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring  passeurs : people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the  Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014


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by Kristin Hannah



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review book gentleman in moscow

This is our 10th Annual Letter, and we’re marking the occasion by answering 10 tough questions that people ask us.

Out for the count

A Gentleman in Moscow  has a little bit of everything

Towles’s novel is technically historical fiction, but you’d be just as accurate calling it a thriller or a love story.

review book gentleman in moscow

Melinda and I sometimes read the same book at the same time. It’s usually a lot of fun, but it can get us in trouble when one of us is further along than the other—which recently happened when we were both reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

At one point, I got teary-eyed because one of the characters gets hurt and must go to the hospital. Melinda was a couple chapters behind me. When she saw me crying, she became worried that a character she loved was going to die. I didn’t want to spoil anything for her, so I just had to wait until she caught up to me.

That one scene aside, A Gentleman in Moscow is a fun, clever, and surprisingly upbeat look at Russian history through the eyes of one man. At the beginning of the book, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to spend his life under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. It’s 1922, and the Bolsheviks have just taken power of the newly formed Soviet Union. The book follows the Count for the next thirty years as he makes the most of his life despite its limitations.

Although the book is fictional, the Metropol is a real hotel. I’ve even been lucky enough to stay there (and it looked mostly the same as Towles describes in the book). It’s the kind of place where you can’t help but picture what it was like at different points in time. The hotel is located across the street from the Kremlin and managed to survive the Bolshevik revolution and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. That’s a lot of history for one building.

Many scenes in the book never happened in real life (as far as I know), but they’re easy to imagine given the Metropol’s history. In one memorable chapter, Bolshevik officials decide that the hotel’s wine cellar is “counter to the ideals of the Revolution.” The hotel staff is forced to remove labels from more than 100,000 bottles, and the restaurant must sell all wine for the same price. The Count—who sees himself as a wine expert—is horrified.

Count Rostov is an observer frozen in time, watching these changes come and go. He felt to me like he was from a different era from the other characters in the book. Throughout all the political turmoil, he manages to survive because, well, he’s good at everything.

He’s read seemingly every book and can identify any piece of music. When he’s forced to become a waiter at the hotel restaurant, he does it with this panache that is incredible. He knows his liquor better than anyone, and he’s not shy about sharing his opinions. The Count should be an insufferable character, but the whole thing works because he’s so charming.

Towles has a talent for quirky details. Early-ish in the book, he says the Count “reviewed the menu in reverse order as was his habit, having learned from experience that giving consideration to appetizers before entrees can only lead to regret.” A description like that tells you so much about a character. By the end of the book, I felt like the Count was an old friend.

You don’t have to be a Russophile to enjoy the book, but if you are, it’s essential reading. I think early 20 th century Russian history is super interesting, so I’ve read a bunch of books about Lenin and Stalin. A Gentleman in Moscow gave me a new perspective on the era, even though it’s fictional. Towles keeps the focus on the Count, so most major historical events (like World War II) get little more than a passing mention. But I loved seeing how these events still shifted the world of the Metropol in ways big and small. It gives you a sense of how political turmoil affects everyone, not just those directly involved with it.

A Gentleman in Moscow is an amazing story because it manages to be a little bit of everything. There’s fantastical romance, politics, espionage, parenthood, and poetry. The book is technically historical fiction, but you’d be just as accurate calling it a thriller or a love story. Even if Russia isn’t on your must-visit list, I think everyone can enjoy Towles’s trip to Moscow this summer.

review book gentleman in moscow

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March 7, 2023

review book gentleman in moscow

‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ is a charming reminder of what it means to be classy

review book gentleman in moscow

How delightful that in an era as crude as ours this finely composed new novel by Amor Towles stretches out with old-World elegance. “ A Gentleman in Moscow ” offers a chance to sink back into a lost attitude of aristocracy — equal parts urbane and humane — just what we might expect from the author of that 2011 bestseller “ Rules of Civility .” But if Towles’s story is an escape we crave, it is also, ironically, a story of imprisonment.

review book gentleman in moscow

The book opens a few years after the Russian Revolution in a period of violent upheaval. A handsome count named Alexander Rostov has been summoned before the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs and accused of writing a counter-revolutionary poem. The trial transcript offers an indication of the count’s blithe resistance to the spirit of the times. Imagine a younger, Slavic version of Alexander McCall Smith facing the Bolsheviks. Asked to state his occupation, he replies, “It is not the business of a gentleman to have occupations.” Only high-ranking friends keep him from being thrown against a wall and shot. Instead, he’s declared a “Former Person” and sentenced to life imprisonment in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol.

Towles observes that “the Russians were the first people to master the notion of sending a man into exile at home.” But the count’s sentence is hardly the Gulag. After all, the Hotel Metropol is a grand Art Nouveau palace — an actual place, still standing. It was constructed at the turn of the century and soon seized by the communists to house bureaucrats and impress foreign guests. The count, though, is consigned to a tiny room on the top floor, crammed with a few pieces of his fine furniture and a set of porcelain plates. This is a character who has “opted for the life of the purposefully unrushed.” He was raised to appreciate the great conveniences of life, such as keeping “a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another.” Now, that extravagant life must somehow be adjusted to the tight confines of a servant’s bedroom. No matter: The man makes the home, not the other way around, and the count is convinced that “by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.”

This is not a novel of thrilling conflicts so much as charming encounters. As the years pass, the count always behaves as a perfect gentleman. He never complains about his confinement — never even admits that it is a confinement. He entertains attractive guests. He spars good-naturedly with a staff member who resents his refined manner. And he even finds himself acting as the father to a young girl whom Towles has called his “Eloise of the Metropol.”

review book gentleman in moscow

As prison sentences go, life in the Hotel Metropol sounds a lot harder on the novelist than on the count. After all, Alexander Rostov might be able to pretend that his little attic room can “provide the satisfactions of traveling by train,” but for the writer, the task of describing decades in a single building sounds frighteningly cramped. And yet, remarkably, in Towles’s hands, it’s a wonderfully spacious setting. As he creates it, the Hotel Metropol is transfixing, full of colorful characters: some transitory, others permanent; mostly fictional, some historical. Yes, the novel offers more high tea than high adventure, but this is a story designed to make you relax, to appreciate your surroundings, to be a person on whom nothing is lost. And don’t worry: There’s some gripping derring-do in the latter parts. (Hollywood: Why haven’t you snapped this up?)

The novel’s trickier challenge is the potential for glibness. There could easily have been something unseemly about a light comedy that takes place against the background of two world wars and the fathomless horrors of Stalinism — “Hogan’s Heroes” with room service. Towles’s solution is wry understatement that extends to a series of historical footnotes. “Let us concede,” he says at the start of one chapter, “that the early thirties in Russia were unkind.” It’s an approach that allows him to pursue his warmhearted story while acknowledging, with Russian irony, the ocean of suffering taking place all around it.

Admittedly, the whole enterprise depends on how deeply you fall in love with the count. (I began to wear an ascot and affect a brittle chuckle around the house until my wife told me to cut it out.) Although Towles tells the story in the third person, there’s clearly some deep sympathy here between the protagonist and the author, who retired from a lucrative career in finance to write fiction. His omniscient narrator is only a few tones away from the count’s own voice — dusted with wit and given to statements of feigned melodrama, such as, “Surely, the span of time between the placing of an order and the arrival of appetizers is one of the most perilous in all of human interaction.” It’s that crisp, light humor that keeps the count from sounding preachy even as he assumes a kind of quiet authority in an ugly world. “The Count had restricted himself to two succinct pieces of parental advice,” Towles tells us. “The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.”

In our own allegedly classless society, we seem to have retained only what’s deplorable about aristocracy — the oppression, the snobbery, the racism — and thrown out those qualities that were worth retaining. Which makes “The Gentleman of Moscow” an endearing reminder of the graciousness of real class. It has nothing to do with money; it’s predicated on the kind of moral discipline that never goes out of style.

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles .

By Amor Towles

Viking. 480 pp. $27

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review book gentleman in moscow

Dear Author

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Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility—a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel With his breakout debut novel, Rules of Civility, Amor Towles established himself as a master of absorbing, sophisticated fiction, bringing late 1930s Manhattan to life with splendid atmosphere and a flawless command of style. Readers and critics were enchanted; as NPR commented, “Towles writes with grace and verve about the mores and manners of a society on the cusp of radical change.” A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in another elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery. Brimming with humour, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavour to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

Dear Amor Towles,

I don’t often peruse bestsellers list books, and if I do, it is usually some years later after many, many people read them and some friends whose tastes run close to mine recommend one. After such recommendation, I finally ordered this book from the library. The topic (Russian history) also added to the desire to check this one out.

Of course usually when the book is on the New York time bestsellers list the writing is great and this book is no exception. I highly recommend checking out the sample though, because at times it did go into the overly descriptive category for me, but overall it worked. Since I checked out the book from the library, it looks like I cannot share any quotes in my review.

Actually it was quite hard for me to figure out how to review this book. Besides saying the language is great, I am not really qualified to discuss the details of how the book was written, and the story does not really have much plot which I like to discuss in my reviews.

Comparatively speaking though, this book ended up having more plot than many literary fiction books have. I found the initial premise incredibly silly – because no, Alexander Rostov would not have been ordered to live his life in a luxury hotel, under so called “home arrest”. He would have been put in the real prison or, which would have been way more likely in 1920s, shot. I decided to go along with the premise and see if it holds up as a vehicle of examining Alexander’s character growth.

As such, it did work for me. Alexander was a lovely character, full of quiet dignity and interesting philosophical insights. He built an actual life for himself inside of the Metropol, he found friends, life purpose and actual work. It is also possible that he found love.

I was very curious how the author would address the horrible events taking place in Russia during the thirty something years Alexander was supposed to be in the Metropol, because overall the narrative certainly did not give me a tragic feel. I saw the word “charming” describing the book in several reviews and I think it is an appropriate description.

For the most part the way the tragedies of the second world war in Russian history were mentioned worked, it was mentioned briefly – as much as it touched the characters who interacted with Alexander, but for me in this book it was enough. Although I am not sure if I bought that the second world war affected them that little – devastation should have touched the hotel itself more. I mean, the tone of the book would have became more grim, but if the book wants to be a historical fiction, I think it would have been unavoidable.

It was nice for once to understand the vast majority of the references and foot notes in the book. When I am reading American literary fiction and it is full of foot notes, more often than not I feel as if the information in those is very new to me.

In the last seventy to eighty pages, the narrative actually treats us to a little adventure which also worked for me because of the purpose of the said adventure for the character who will remain unnamed because of the spoilers. What I do wonder about is whether the ending for Alexander is meant to be optimistic or not. I found the ending to be VERY fitting for his character arc, but if it was meant to be optimistic, the author was being naïve. And I love optimistic endings.

I was sorry to say good bye to Sasha and the last thing I am still wondering about was whether his last name was meant to invoke any associations to my favorite character from War and Peace. Honestly besides both of them being nobles I have not seen many.

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Sirius started reading books when she was four and reading and discussing books is still her favorite hobby. One of her very favorite gay romances is Tamara Allen’s Whistling in the Dark. In fact, she loves every book written by Tamara Allen. Amongst her other favorite romance writers are Ginn Hale, Nicole Kimberling, Josephine Myles, Taylor V. Donovan and many others. Sirius’ other favorite genres are scifi, mystery and Russian classics. Sirius also loves travelling, watching movies and long slow walks.

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Your review pushes me to read this book which has been floating around my kindle app for several months. It also raises a question: Why can’t you quote from a library book? (Google is not being helpful -or- I am not asking the right question.)

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I started reading this a couple of years ago and quit about a third of the way in because I was afraid of a tragic ending. It sounds like that’s not the case, though?

I also wondered why he would be put under house arrest in a luxury hotel and not executed or thrown in some awful prison, like you say. Good to know I wasn’t wrong about that.

The book was well-written but the hotel setting started to feel claustrophobic after a while. But obviously that was part of the point.

Each of the author’s books sounds very different from the others and I may try another.

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@ LML : I think what Sirius might mean is that she couldn’t cut and paste from a library book. I’ve noticed the same thing with books I’ve read on Hoopla.

@Jayne, thanks. I became frustrated trying to find an explanation of the legal difference between quoting from library and owned books. I completely forgot libraries have ebooks.

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I read this several years ago with my book group. My group generally reads literary fiction that is dark/dismal; A Gentleman in Moscow made a very pleasant exception to that rule.

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I read “A Gentleman in Moscow” right after reading (OK, skimming much of) “Where the Crawdads Sing”. Very much liked the former, very much didn’t like the latter. Both were, in their way, fairy tales, where the good end happily and the bad unhappily, but the characters in the Towles book came alive for me and I cared about them. In the Owens, the natural world came alive but the characters did not. Janine is correct that in the Real World the count would probably have died in prison or been shot and life in Moscow was pretty grim, but I found Towles such a gifted storyteller that I was able to suspend my disbelief — as I said, sometimes one wants to believe in the fairy tale and some authors are able to make us do so.

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@ Jayne : Yes, sorry thats exactly what I [email protected] Janine Ballard : Yep the only reason why he is in the luxury hotel is because author said so, but as a narrative set-up it worked more to less. The ending is definitely NOT tragic, but if you want to take a realistic view of what may happen after the ending I don’t see it as not tragic either, but thats if you approach the book as historical fiction and look beyond. On page it is not tragic at [email protected] Susan/DC : Absolutely, but see what I wrote to Janine. I have not exactly realized that I am supposed to approach it as a fairy tale and thats why had some dissonance happening, but for the most part I really liked it and enjoyed the characters a lot.

@ Janine Ballard : @ Janine Ballard : Sorry I also meant to say that I ordered “The Rules of Civility” from the library.

@ Kareni : I am not sure when I will be in the mood for dark/dismal books if I previously have not read those before and know what will happen at least. Probably not very soon.

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@ Susan/DC : I guess I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief as well as you were. What I know of the reality of Revolutionary Russia (Sirius knows a lot more) is so far from a fairy tale that as a backdrop for one it struck a jarring note.

BTW, one of my favorite short stories of the twentieth century is Nathan Englander’s “The Twenty-Seventh Man.” It can be found in his short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which is available in many libraries. “The Twenty-Seventh Man” is also a fable about Soviet Russsia and men (in this case all writers) who were arrested. It is obviously a fable, and does not read like something out of reality (it isn’t intended to), and yet for me, it spoke far more powerfully than A Gentleman in Moscow because even though it was made obvious that the story wasn’t real, it nevertheless spoke to what I believe are truths about the predicament of such men in the USSR in a way that A Gentleman in Moscow did not.

Sirius, if you ever read this story I would love to know what you think of it. To me it’s one of the very few recent (by which I mean of the past few decades) literary short stories that ought to be considered a bona fide classic. It’s the first story in the book so you can read the first few pages in the “Look Inside” preview on Amazon:


@ Janine : I have not read this author at all, thank you for recommendation.

@ Sirius : I find him uneven and this story is really the only thing of his that I loved. A lot of people have raved about the other short stories in this same collection, though.

@ Janine : I read the Nathan Englander book when it first came out. Because I didn’t keep a reading journal at the time I don’t remember it in detail and have no record of my reaction. I do remember that I thought the story of the prisoners and the one about the Jews who wind up as acrobats were the ones that had the biggest impact on me (the title story didn’t appeal). In my mind I didn’t think of them as fairy tales but as surreal, and the ending of “The Tumblers” reminded me somewhat of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” — not reality but the ending one wished for. I wish I could be more concrete in my comments, but, as I said, it’s been a very long time.

@ Susan/DC : “The Tumblers” was definitely the second-best story in the collection, and the rest were forgettable IMO. “The Twenty-Seventh Man” is nothing short of brilliant, though.

Surrealist fiction and literary fabulism have a lot of overlap and are sometimes referred to interchangeably. They aren’t the same thing as fairy tales, though, I agree. What I meant was that the story in “The Twenty-Seventh Man” is in some ways just as unlikely as the one in A Gentleman in Moscow but it speaks to a greater truth whereas A Gentleman in Moscow (if I understand what Sirius is saying about the ending; I only read part of the book) is more of a fantasy.

This connects to what you say about “The Tumblers” — “not reality but the ending one wished for.” The impact of the way “The Tumblers” ends comes from the fact that we know it isn’t the real ending; we know that the real ending is the unthinkable, and the story thinks itself into a better ending. That is very much the case with “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” also—great parallel.

“The Tumblers” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” are neither of them a fantasy / fairy tale so much as stories about how in some circumstances we need a fantasy / fairy tale enough to accept one over reality. Whereas A Gentleman in Moscow sounds like an actual fantasy / fairy tale. We either accept it for what it is or reject it on those same grounds, and if it makes us think of how reality differs from the story, it’s not because that was the author’s deliberate purpose.

@ Janine : I will eventually get it from the library I think. I won’t be buying it for one story.

Just one more comment, slightly off topic: Many years ago there was a short film made of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. I think it was shown as an episode of The Twilight Zone, but I’m really not sure. IIRC, it had little or no dialogue, which I think enhanced the drama. It made a big impression on a very young me at the time.

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