“For 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.”
It’s not often that I read a book that persistently permeates my thoughts after I’ve finished it. I can think of three, maybe four, other instances. I’m happy to announce that my shortlist of unforgettable books now has a new addition in its ranks. Simply put, A Gentleman in Moscow is a modern masterpiece.
Our protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, is 33 years old in 1922 when a Bolshevik tribunal takes all of 12 minutes to determine that he has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class. For that crime, he is sentenced to live the rest of his life confined to the walls of the Metropol hotel in Moscow. The Count is warned that if he ever steps foot outside again, he will be shot. It is with this sentence that the Count’s world of travel, leisure, glittering balls and liberal arts education is abruptly terminated. Instead, upon his return from the trial, he is moved to a small room in the hotel’s servant’s quarters, where he is allowed to keep few of his possessions and is thrust immediately into a brand new world.
We get to know the Count quickly, and we learn a great deal about his past and personality through the first few chapters. The Count is a true gentleman: he’s learned in the arts, he’s multilingual and well traveled, he has manners that would charm the Queen, and he’s wickedly smart. He seems to have read every book, listened to every composer and studied every political theorist. He has an incredible knowledge and appreciation of food and wine. His sense of humour is unparalleled and he seems wise far beyond his 33 years.
One of the most incredible aspects of the Count’s character is that he quickly proves he isn’t as easily defeated as we would suspect someone in his position would be. He takes his socio-economic demotion at the hands of the Bolsheviks in stride and always maintains his gregarious, charming persona. He appears to hold no grudge toward his captors. Instead, he treats this change in fortunes as a new challenge and adventure. As we witness the next 30 years of his life unfold on the page, he becomes an even more interesting character. He maintains his genteel manners and habits (enjoying delicacies in the hotel restaurant, contemplating themes from major poets with his friends and mingling with the VIP guests that stay at the hotel) but he also becomes immersed in the lives of the Metropol’s staff. He learns to sew from the hotel’s seamstress, he becomes a server and works closely with the head chef and maitre d’ and becomes fast friends with a precocious nine year old resident of the hotel.
Through the Count, Towles reminds us of an ultimate truth: if one does not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them.
Are you a fan of George Eliot? Good, so am I. I knew we had a lot in common. If you liked Silas Marner, you’ll appreciate some of the themes found in this book. At one point, Towles mirrors some aspects of Eliot’s work and, in my humble opinion, does so expertly. I want to avoid spoilers, so that’s all I will say on that note.
This book displays Towles’ incredible mastery of the English language. Each word feels intentional and important, and although it’s a large book, it doesn’t feel drawn out (which is often how I feel about other 400+ page novels). As a matter of fact, I found myself wishing for an extended version, a sequel, or at least a tweet from the author telling me what happened next. Anything to satisfy the burning desire to learn more about these incredible characters and this fascinating moment in history.
A Gentleman in Moscow is like a decadent chocolate cake, or a perfectly seared steak, or an exquisite bottle of wine shared by lovers. It is designed to be enjoyed slowly. Please heed my advice and don’t speed through this one. Savour it, for it’s a one in a million book.
I’ll finish this review with one last quote. I read it three or four times, because I had the distinct feeling that this was a quote that must be remembered in the midst of so much chaos in our world.
“He had said that our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of lucidity—a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of the life we had been meant to lead all along.”
I told you this was a damn good book.
Pairs well with: a 2018 Chablis, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, your best dinner attire (velvet optional but strongly encouraged).