“Have you read ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ yet?” the message from a Shelf Improver read. “I have not been so delighted in a long time.”
I had heard about the book, published last year to great acclaim, and was glad to hear this recommendation from someone whose taste I respect. So I was thrilled when it turned out to be the next book I had to read for book club. At 480 pages, it raised an eyebrow, but once I started, there was no stopping. It was, as promised, a delight from start to finish with plenty to talk about afterward.
Shortly after the Russian Revolution, the charming and handsome Count Alexander Rostov is brought to trial for the contents of a poem he writes and is sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Yikes! you say. Well, yes and no. Thanks to some highly placed friends, his “prison” is actually a real grand hotel—the Metropol—where he had been living in a suite of rooms. He is, however, moved to the top floor servants’ quarters in a room, a far cry from his former digs.
Still, he has access to the rest of the Metropol, its restaurants, its grandeur, and most important, its residents—both transitory and permanent—and its employees. For the next several decades, the count witnesses the changes wrought by Communism and builds his own world from the shards of his previous life and the class that remains a part of his DNA.
The count seems content in this new life and never complains, even when he is forced to cut off his brilliant mustache. “If one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them,” he says. True, he regularly points to the importance of elegance and the lack of attention to it as time goes by, but when he does, it’s done with carefully crafted urbane wit that never comes across as snobby.
Hidden away in the Metropol, the count escapes most of the horrors of the early to mid years of Russian Communism, mastering his circumstances. But later, when those he has grown to love are affected, he realizes he must act. This is when the story, mostly beautifully written scenes that don’t build to anything, kicks into high gear. All the details Towles has included earlier become important and the count uses them in clever ways that will make a reader appreciate even more all that has happened so far.
There is as much—or as little, as one could read this book on a surface level and still be satisfied—as you want to find in terms of themes and symbols that the book discussion revealed depths that might be missed. Is the count a symbol for the changes that Communism brought to Russia? Did the count, in a way, imprison himself before the court did? What’s with all the talk about buttons and stars? It’s so interesting to hear others’ insights about a well-crafted novel. Still, no one gave me a satisfactory answer for all the times Towles referred to the temperature of things. In fact, though it drove me crazy, many of the book club members hadn’t even noticed it.
In the end, we see that a life made small by circumstances isn’t small at all. We should all try to keep in mind the count’s timeless philosophy: “by the smallest of ones actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.”