“Manners are not like bonbons, Nina. You may not choose the ones that suit you best; and you certainly cannot put the half-bitten ones back in the box.” – Count Rostov, A Gentleman in Moscow
Typically, when the appeal of a novel rests on setting, character development, and beautiful writing rather than a driven plot, it fails to engage me. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is a story of place and of characters if ever there was one, and I found it utterly enthralling. According to The Washington Post, “This is not a novel of thrilling conflicts so much as charming encounters,” and so it is. I nearly put it down numerous times during the first half, but I enjoyed the experience of living in the world Towles weaves within it so much that I just kept returning for another visit.
Declared a “Former Person” by the Bolsheviks for the crime of being born an aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov is narrowly spared from death and is instead condemned to a life sentence of house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, where he lives his next 32 years.
The challenge for the Count is to keep the walls of the hotel from closing in and crushing his existence. Thankfully, he is of the disposition to adapt and play the hand he is dealt to the best of his ability. As he relates towards the end of the novel, “If one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and … the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.”
Since the reader is, in essence, trapped in this situation with the Count, it is vital that he be a pleasant companion. With an immense appreciation of the ironic, Count Rostov’s clever and witty appraisals of his daily life make a harmonious whole when combined with his refined taste in absolutely everything, from his palate to his preferences in music. The decades pass with the Count creating an entire world out of a hotel that continues to open wider and fuller to reveal more and more aspects of both the physical space and the interesting people found within it. By the novel’s end, the reader does not want to leave these characters that have become dear friends.
The story also highlights the many absurdities of the communist regime in Russia — at one point, all of the wine bottles in the hotel are stripped of their labels in an effort to make everything fair and equally accessible to all.
Towles also plays with several elements of form in writing this novel. Every chapter name begins with the letter “A,” and the structure of the novel takes the shape of a diamond on its side in two distinct ways. “From the moment the Count passes through the hotel’s revolving doors, the narrative begins opening steadily outward,” explains Towles. “Over the next two hundred pages, detailed descriptions accumulate of people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events, many of which seem almost incidental. But then, as the book shifts into its second half, the narrative begins to narrow and all of the disparate elements from the first half converge. Bit characters, passing remarks, incidental objects come swirling together and play essential roles in bringing the narrative to its sharply pointed conclusion.”
The chronology of the book also adheres to this same geometrical outline, as the period of time elapsed between chapters follows a doubling principle: one day after his house arrest begins, two days after, five days, 10 days, et cetera, until 16 years have passed. At this midpoint, Towles begins to move back down with the narrative then leaping eight years, four years … all the way until the time between chapters is again days, and then finally, the last day.
Towles explains, “We get a very granular description of the early days of confinement; then we leap across time through eras defined by career, parenthood, and changes in the political landscape; and finally, we get a reversion to urgent granularity as we approach the denouement. As an aside, I think this is very true to life, in that we remember so many events of a single year in our early adulthood, but then suddenly remember an entire decade as a phase of our career or of our lives as parents.”
This book reads like a glass of fine wine, to be sipped slowly and appreciated, and to be returned to again and again.