A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Review by Megan Tilley
Elegantly crafted and dazzlingly clever, Amor Towles’s novel A Gentleman in Moscow transcends the often gloomy descriptions of Soviet-era Russia to create a world both insulated from the outside world and endlessly influenced by it. While many novels set in tumultuous 1920s Moscow spend considerable time on the metropolis and the daily lives of citizens, Towles instead retreats into one of the last vestiges of a bygone era: the Hotel Metropol. A grand dame of a hotel, it acts as the stage for Alexander Rostov, one of the most memorable protagonists of recent years. A former count, Rostov is called before the court to answer for a counter-revolutionary poem he wrote and is exiled to the hotel’s attic rooms, a far cry from his previously lavish accommodations. Nevertheless, Rostov navigates his now-small world with elegance and ease, which characterizes the novel entirely. Remarkably light in its prose, A Gentleman in Moscow manages to take the gray and chaotic years of the Soviet Union and transform them, through Rostov, into small moments of wonder.
This is not to say that Towles neglects the enormous toll the Revolution took on Russian citizens. As he moves through his apartments, deciding what to leave and what to take with him to his attic rooms, Rostov travels through his family history. These moments are touched with nostalgia as he parts with objects that are deeply meaningful to him. Towles allows the book to nod toward the history of Russian literature, which often features tortured, yet deeply human characters. However, no matter how often he touches his characters with pain, Towles puts them back into the world of the Metropol and Rostov’s seeming unflappability.
One of the joys of the novel is that, despite taking place in a hotel, readers are never wanting for character interaction. Whether it is Rostov speaking to himself in his room (the beam above Rostov’s bed hits him quite solidly on the head while he’s sitting up, to which he responds “Just so”) or interacting with hotel staff, Towles manages to handle all dialogue with a practiced grace. While initially distant, Rostov grows more and more attached to the many workers of the hotel. This allows Towles to create thoroughly likeable characters without straying into the possibility of boredom or repetition.
While the time period of the novel is fraught with conflict, Rostov finds the Bolsheviks boring, avoiding political discourse to prevent getting caught up in their tendency to “levy complaints, and generally clamor about the world’s oldest problems in its newest nomenclature.” Instead of focusing on the political upheaval, Rostov turns to work, despite his earlier statement to the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs that “it is not the business of a gentleman to have occupations.” Rostov becomes a waiter in the hotel restaurant, befitting his knowledge of fine dining, which the novel introduces to readers early. By having his narrator, who is initially part of the privileged class of Russian aristocrats, begin to associate on an equal level with the other staff members and eventually befriend them, Towles is able to demonstrate Rostov’s transformation. Rostov is determined to keep the Hotel Metropol as a last bastion of the culture he loved.
Within the dining room, Towles’s ability to characterize through dialogue shines through. When the character Nina asks if a banquet needs an asparagus server, the reader is surprised when Rostov replies, “Does an orchestra need a bassoon?” Rostov feels comfortable in the world of culture and uses his knowledge to navigate the now Soviet-controlled dining room. He can even accurately identify bottles of wine within the defaced cellar by touch.
Besides inquiring about asparagus servers and acting as Rostov’s companion, Nina serves a grander purpose within the book, becoming one of the clearest markers of time. In possession of a skeleton key that allows access into any room of the hotel, Nina herself is the key to Rostov’s emotional transformation. We meet her as a child, and she quickly matures, entertaining suitors and providing Rostov with a glimpse into the world outside of the Hotel Metropol.
It is Towles’s prose and crafting of the relationship between characters that keep this book lively. One might see this plot as mired in extraneous details or the general gloom of Soviet Russia, but Towles’s ability to create a glowing and insulated world keeps the novel light, without ignoring the historic significance of both the time period and the hotel, which still stands in Moscow—Towles does credit to its splendor and historicity. As the narrator points out, Russia in the early 1930s was unkind, and the feeling of that era does not diminish even in the novel’s most splendid moments.
Megan Tilley is an MA in Literature. Her focus is on 21st century contemporary literature, particularly works that explore the themes of apocalypse and the utopia/dystopia binary.