Stumbling upon a piece of writing that is equally eye-opening and thought-provoking as it is entertaining is a blissful experience. I recently had an experience with a novel that truly fulfilled me and gave me quite a bit of perspective on the sincerity of living life with the sole purpose of giving every day a purpose. Amore Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow,” is a serene piece of historical fiction that is brimming with personality, humor, and philosophical tangents that are immersive and a pleasure to read.
“A Gentleman in Moscow,” is outstanding because it is, at heart, a novel essentially about nothing in particular. The novel tells the tale of a Russian aristocrat deemed unfit to be a public citizen in the early 1920’s in Moscow. With an acclaimed poem and literary accomplishment under his belt, rather than sending Count Rostov to a work camp in Siberia or a bleak dungeon, he is sentenced to house arrest in the historic and luxurious Metropol Hotel.
“A Gentleman in Moscow,” is a novel whose characters, namely the main character Alexander Rostov and his band of friends that consist of the hotel’s employees, manage to drive the inspiration and quality of the story forward without grandiose, eventful happenings. This is a mostly whimsical, thought-provoking tale about one man’s quest to make strides in the arts, philosophy, and literature while putting together meticulously crafted meals with the perfect wine pairing and picking the brains of foreign visitors of the hotel. Count Rostov lets the events of the Cold War and World War II pass him by in the electric hub of culture that is the Metropol.
The unique turn that Amore Towles takes within this story creates a fascinating anti-establishment narrative surrounding the Russian Revolution and the subsequent rise of power among the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin. These themes are subtle and channeled through the one tragic storyline traced throughout the novel, one that deals with Count Rostov’s closest childhood friend, Mishka. Towles meticulously crafts the story arcs of the Count’s closest friends, who are able to leave the hotel, to have them be wrongfully affected and ultimately lost forever to the cruelty and abrasiveness of the ever-changing Russian government at this time in history.
Some of the first words spoken by Count Rostov in the novel, during the proceedings of his court appearance that ends with his house arrest sentence, are, “I have lived under the impression that a man’s purpose is known only to God.” The response he receives from the court secretary, “Indeed. How convenient that must have been for you.”
Looking back, this is a very relevant detail for the rest of the book as we witness Count Rostov become a man incredibly driven by purpose, a sense of purpose that is so tangible, authentic, and eloquent that it is impossible to not get enveloped in the musings, comedy, and outstanding misadventures that become the focal point of Count Rostov’s life in the Metropol hotel. Inspiring tangents of Rostov’s philosophies surrounding life and social decorum are utterly fascinating to read as Amore Towles’ poetic writing style brims with personality and lackadaisical meanderings across references to Crime and Punishment and Casablanca. There is a tangent in the novel in which Count Rostov reflects on his philosophy that temperature is a defining element in the absurdity and randomness of events as time relentlessly unfurls. His reasoning is that, ahead of a night out, the temperature sitting precariously at 34 degrees with incoming rain clouds, it very well could be the recipe for a soaked arrival to the dinner party and glum spirits due to the grim weather. Yet, by whatever stroke of randomness, the temperature dips below freezing, turning the dinner party into a cozy gathering of opportunity as the first snow of the year lazily drifts outside.
Count Rostov builds a wonderfully inspiring sense of purpose and self-acceptance, fashioning his lifestyle and philosophies primarily around seating arrangements at dinner, fine culinary creations, time, love, literature, and revolution. The story drives forward in a nearly dream-like fashion, often taking great leaps forward in time as the reader witnesses Count Rostov become a man of purpose and a man driven to excel with the cards dealt.
Count Rostov makes a friend out of a former Red Army soldier and a secret police officer named Osip who expresses his desire to learn the philosophies and gentleman-like qualities that Rostov possesses in order to become better aligned in his job, building relations with the United States. Rostov and Osip have a fascinating dynamic as they both build new perspectives on the West and the budding roots of capitalism through watching the first movies to come out of Hollywood. They are both able to gain new insights into American culture, Rostov, having not left the Metropol in nearly 40 years, has incredibly thought-provoking and satirical conclusions drawn from these contemplations on Western culture with Osip.
“A Gentleman in Moscow,” is a wonderful book and it felt like an honor to read something with such driven inspiration and lush references scattered across it. It is a novel with a very layered story-telling style that could likely be pulled apart and looked at from separate angles for hours. I will likely return to this book in the future to pick up on more themes and concepts that might have eluded me on my first read.
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