Thursday, November 5, 2020

Amor Towles - A Gentleman in Moscow

On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.
But instead of being taken to his usual suite, he is led to an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely.
While Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval, the Count, stripped of the trappings that defined his life, is forced to question what makes us who we are. And with the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose.

Comment: This book was quite well received when it was published in 2016. It has gained many more fans in the years that followed and when I saw it in a bookstore last year I felt like buying it although I had never paid attention to it and to what it would be about. I', now very glad I bought it because it was an excellent read, if not slightly slow in some moments.

This is the story of count Alexander Ilych Rostov, a man who, in his thirties in 1922 is sentenced to house arrest by the new regime in Russia. Since Alexander is a member of the aristocracy, of which many have been killed, he is destined to a life sentence house arrest in the Metropol hotel, and he is granted this respite over death due to a poem he had written years before and that the older comrades of the Party have felt helped their cause. So, now, a veritable gentleman such as count Rostov needs to go about his days as a prisoner, as someone who doesn't have what made him who he is anymore but, in reality, the true aspect of his character cannot be taken from him...

This is an intricate, well thought, well executed, well delivered novel. It's true that, for me, some scenes/passages were a little too slow, a little to dragging but the overall sense I got while reading and after finishing is that this book has all the important elements to work and for me, it was simply a marvelous experience to not only be able to "know" the count but to spend time with him.

I can't even enumerate all the little things that make this a great book. Any fans of detailed narratives which also contain philosophical ideas, historical moments being depicted with a certain ironic point of view and a very, very likable main character will like this book for certain. The beauty of it is in all the little things, the apparently innocent elements here and there which turn out to be the best choice to bring this story to life. This is a story to be savored, to be appreciated, to make one think and feel things and, again, for me this was what happened and I had a wonderful time reading.

Count Rostov is a brilliant character. He is polite in the face of his arrest, he is charming with those who he must live with, who had reason to mock or despise him but who feel he is a well loved family member. He shares his knowledge and his feelings with those he cares about, with those he respects and he is the true embodiment of a gentleman, of someone whose values aren't just in which position he has in an aristocracy which is being erased; he is a good man with a good character.

With this I don't mean he is a simple character in this book just going about a life he had to be resigned with and that he can't escape.. he is so much more because his presence and his part in other character's lives gains importance as the plot develops. Often I felt sorry for him, other times I could really see why he thinks he was lucky his destiny was a "hotel arrest" and when the book ends I didn't feel I was cheated out of a worthy finale, but was given a little piece of wonder. The way the words are so well chosen, so well placed that despite the less interesting parts of the novel or the things I wish the author could have developed differently, I was still so glad I was able to read about this main character and what his life was like.

I don't mean to say the end is a bad one or a sad one... I'd use the word bittersweet but not in the sense something happened I disliked but had to happen... no, I feel that more because the end left me feeling sad over the Count's lost time, no matter how much it was filled with enriching experiences or special moments... some of the things he described really made me think...

Some readers have said the focus on him while Russia goes through so many changes and so many other people suffered a lot worse makes this a fairy tale type of story. Well, perhaps, but I would say that for those who want gritty reality and true life events there's always non-fiction... I think the years the Count spends on the hotel and if one reads between the lines, his sorrow and his losses aren't just restricted to his physical body being denied freedom to go wherever he wants... his anguish at times can be a lot more self centered.

I liked all the elements in this story, pace and some details aside. I liked the historical tidbits, the literature ones, the philosophical... this book is a lot more than just the apparently simple plot of a man in house arrest in a gorgeous and sophisticated hotel. His relationship with the other characters, his way of accepting and changing his way of going about things while maintaining who he is, while keeping the moments and the emotions which shaped his self... This still makes think about what i read and I for me that is certainly special...

Grade: 8/10

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