A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I accept that some bloggers, whose reading tastes lean toward the more literary end of things, will unfollow me for what I’m about to say…

…but when I watched six seasons of The Hills (yes, that ‘reality’ show with LC and Heidi and Spencer), I was engrossed in the detail – the parties, the holidays, the break-ups and make-ups, Justin Bobby, the workplace dramas. It was all very ‘up close’. And then the last episode happened – had the producers been playing the audience the whole time?!

If you’ve read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and watched all of The Hills (I might be the only person who fits this category) you will totally understand the similarity. Sure, The Hills is about twenty-somethings living in LA, and A Gentleman is about a Russian Count, sentenced in 1922 to house arrest in a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. In A Gentleman we have the (charming) minutiae of Count Alexander Rostov’s life in the Metropol – there’s a brouhaha with geese, games on the stairs, reading to be done, a weekly appointment at the barber’s, food to be enjoyed and brandy to be drunk – the lens is very tightly focused, and the book is as much about what we don’t see (tumultuous change in Russia) as it is about Count Rostov’s musings about his daily fruit selection. And then comes the ending – a masterstroke by Towles.

Towles somehow strikes a balance between not much happening at all, and shifting the story forward. Themes of friendship, romance, class and parental duty are included but not heavy-handedly – instead, the smallest details reveal the ‘action’ and speak to the themes, as a conversation about cutlery between the Count and nine-year-old Nina demonstrates –

“An asparagus server,” he explained.
“Does a banquet really need an asparagus server?”
“Does an orchestra need a bassoon?”

In particular, the theme of friendship shines. When Rostov begins his ‘arrest’ at the hotel, the staff are just that – chefs, bartenders, the seamstress, the florist, the barber and doormen – there to serve. By the end, some of these people are his dear friends. But these are not friendships borne of circumstance, they are (to borrow a phrase from Anne of Green Gables) ‘kindred spirits’. The narrator observes –

Some might wonder that the two men should consider themselves to be old friends having only known each other for four years; but the tenure of friendships has never been governed by the passage of time.

The story is dominated by carefully constructed ‘set-pieces’. I had some favourites – the removal of thousands of labels from the wine in the hotel’s cellar (so that all bottles are equal); and the acquisition of fifteen difficult-to-obtain ingredients so that the hotel chef could cook an authentic Mediterranean bouillabaisse (to remind them of life beyond the Iron Curtain). In each scene there is a terrific sense of place, but each tells something of Russia’s political climate (and it’s in such scenes that you see why this book is calling out to be put on screen).

Some are predicting this book will become a classic… and here I am drawing parallels to junk tv. Know that it is a well-crafted and satisfying read.

3.5/5 Just so!

Turning his attention to his okroshka, the Count could tell at a glance that it was a commendable execution – a bowl of soup that any Russian in the room might have been served by his grandmother. Closing his eyes in order to give the first spoonful its due consideration, the Count noted a suitably chilled temperature, a tad too much salt, a tad too little kvass, but a perfect expression of dill – that harbinger of summer which brings to mind the songs of crickets and the setting of one’s soul at ease.

8 responses

  1. I started AGinM ages ago and really must get back to it. Meanwhile, I have not come across The Hills – it doesn’t seem to be available in the UK. A pity because I love a good bit of junk TV from time to time!

  2. I have this book sitting on my TBR pile for a while now…Been seeing it around for ages that I finally caved and picked it up (the main character’s Russian, I was immediately intrigued lol). Interesting review, hope to get around to this book soon enough…

  3. A fantastic book, the best one I have ever read. It has it all. As you say, not much happens but Towles still manages to put the story forward. It is not so much what is said but what is not said. I love the parallell stories of what happens to Rostov in the hotel, mimicking the events on the outside. A genius story. I am sure it will become a classic.

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