A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Harking back to the good old days…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov falls foul of the new Bolshevik regime in the Russia of 1922, they show him mercy because he had written a famous revolutionary poem back in 1913. So instead of killing him, they sentence him to permanent house arrest in the luxurious Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The book is the story of his life there and, through him, of life under communism in the USSR.

The basic tone of the book is light and entertaining. Rostov is a noble from a wealthy land-owning family but on the whole he’s happy to go along with the ideals of the new regime, even if he’s not terribly enamoured of its practicalities. The depth in the book comes from various scenes and anecdotes that shed light on the changing Russia. Rostov occasionally gets nostalgic over Tolstoyan-like memories of winter sleigh-rides in troikas and aristocrat-filled dances. Even in his new life, Rostov is privileged – still rich and the Metropol is still the haunt of the upper echelons, though now these are drawn from the party hierarchy rather than the nobility. Towles uses this to show that life under the communists soon grew to resemble life under the Tsar – only the elite had changed.

Rostov is soon befriended by a little girl, Nina, also resident in the hotel because of her father’s job being attached to the regime. Nina’s character didn’t work so well for me – she often speaks with a vocabulary and level of understanding well beyond her years. However, in reality she’s something of a plot device to give Rostov a connection to the world outside the hotel and an opportunity to pontificate on his philosophy of life.

My initial impressions of the book were very favourable. Towles’ prose is excellent, often intelligent and sparkling with wit. I suspect it’s also full of references to Russian literature that went over my head because I’ve read so little of it, but it isn’t done in such a way that I felt ‘left out’. Unfortunately, as I went on, I began to find it too much of a good thing. I found myself longing for him to say something plain, rather than being relentlessly whimsical or turning every phrase into a beautifully constructed bon mot. This verbal playfulness not only slows the thing to a crawl but verges dangerously on style over substance.

Metropol Hotel, Moscow

My other major issue with the book is that, whether he means to or not (I’m not sure), the impression is that in his desire to ridicule the Bolsheviks and the Soviet system, Towles seems to be giving a rather glowingly nostalgic view of life before the revolution. Since life under tsarism was at least as brutal for most of the population, this is an odd tone to take, especially for an American. Being anti-communist shouldn’t make one pro the tyranny of an absolute monarch, I wouldn’t have thought. Towles seems to favour the aristocracy as being more ‘gentlemanly’ than the Bolsheviks (a real consideration when you’re a starving peasant, I’d imagine). And he does things that seem to suggest that the Count, by birth, deserves special treatment. It’s not that the Count gets special treatment that I found odd – it’s Towles’ implicit approval that jarred.

Amor Towles

As the book goes on, the story becomes gradually less credible, and the device of Rostov being stuck in the hotel begins to feel restrictive of how much Towles can show of the world beyond the doors. The end indulges in yet more nostalgia for the good old days when aristocrats lived in luxury, and we are left sighing for the beautiful estates and days of civilised idleness (that a tiny percentage of pre-revolutionary Russians enjoyed at the expense of all the rest).

Perhaps reading the book at a point when I’ve been so steeped in reading about the real history of the tragedies of the Russian people may have coloured my view somewhat, but I think I’d have been just as critical of the book’s apparent message at any other time. It’s very well-written, amusing and entertaining. But it’s too light for its subject matter – too removed from the real world to say anything substantial about life under the Soviets. Towles wants, I think, to make points about denial of individuality, loss of personal freedom, loss of civilisation, but his choice to use a hangover from the old ruling elite makes the politics feel wrong. A few people may have lived privileged, intellectual, art-filled lives before the revolution, but most lived in appalling conditions in both towns and villages, without education, suffering real poverty and hunger. For them, perhaps communism didn’t work out the way they hoped, but I doubt they got overly nostalgic about the past either.

So I have mixed feelings – in the end it felt oddly off-kilter, lacking any real profundity or depth, but even so I did find it an entertaining and enjoyable read for the most part and, on that half-hearted basis, would still recommend it.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

49 thoughts on “A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

  1. Nicely reviewed. The author appears to have given much attention to the Bolshevik Revolution and life under communist USSR. As I read through your review and recalled my own knowledge of Bolshevism, I couldn’t help wonder if this book wouldn’t have read as well without Count Rostov. Of course, that would have changed the flavour of the book entirely.

    • Thank you! I certainly felt he’d done his research, but I’d have preferred if he’d either been more political or less. Somehow the political bit felt superficial – I couldn’t help thinking of the horrors that were going on outside the hotel, so it was difficult to sympathise with the Count’s life of relative luxury inside.

    • I wondered that too. Perhaps he was making some kind of point that I missed, but it felt as if really he was trying to make it too entertaining for the subject matter, and kinda ignoring the true horrors that were happening in Russia at the time. Strange.

  2. An excellent review, FictionFan, as ever. And it is interesting, even disconcerting, that the book has that sense of nostalgia. I think that would put me off after a while, especially given the way it’s presented here. It sounds as though the setting is well-crafted, and I do respect a well-written turn of phrase. Hmm….I like historical fiction, but not sure this one would be for me.

    • Thanks, Margot! It did feel odd to me – I know I’ve been steeped in the horrors of the period for months which may have coloured my view, but it really felt as if he was making a false comparison between Russia under the Tsar and then under the Bolsheviks. But he is undoubtedly a skilled writer – I’ve enjoyed both his books though I’ve found them both rather flawed in terms of “the message”. But I’ll still be reading his next…

  3. I’m still on the fence about this one. I thought it might be a fun way to learn something, but I don’t want what I’m learning to be off kilter with the way things really were.

    • I must be honest – I think this is one more to read for entertainment than to learn anything much about the period. It gives a very strange and restricted view of the period. I haven’t really read a great fiction that gives a realistic view yet – Dr Zhivago, of course, but I did feel I might have got lost in it if I hadn’t already had a feel for what was going on. The search continues… 🙂

  4. That looks like an interesting hotel, something that would lend itself to a nice mystery, rather than the sort of book you’ve brilliantly reviewed! See? I’m still not tempted to pursue Russian literature. But can’t you just imagine all the potential hiding places in a building like that? All the possible suspects? In the right hands, this could be a juicy tale!

    • It does! I wasn’t sure if it was a real hotel while I was reading but checked it out on google later, and it does look very much as he described it. I think I’d have preferred a mystery! If someone sets out to write a book with a political background then I’m afraid they have to do a better job at getting the politics right… for this picky reader anyway!

  5. I’m with you. I don’t think I would enjoy reading a story that’s nostalgic about the changing of one oppression for another, especially from the viewpoint of someone so coddled. No thank you. I’ve read the book, The Family Romanov, by Candace Fleming that’s won more than a handful of awards for nonfiction. Way too distressing to think kindly about any kind of oppression from any regime.

    • It’s odd – this is the second book by an American author where I’ve commented that he seems to think that dictatorship by an absolute monarch is a thing to be thought of with nostalgic affection. The other was Mark Helprin in A Kingdom Far and Clear. Given the constant American boasting about being the world’s oldest (untrue) and greatest (hmm… let’s just say, debatable) democracy, the nostalgia for despots seems weird. Though it may help to explain current events… 😉

      • Yes, yes, the good ol’ days of despotry. It’s strange. I associate those who long for despots with the patriarchy and wanting to be taken care of by “daddy,” even if “daddy” controls everything they do. And from what I’ve read of #45, that’s exactly how he was raised. Daddy knows best, so he’s now taken on the role of daddy. It would be funnier if this were a sitcom, maybe. Maybe not. I’m having trouble laughing. Except, of course, at the newly minted country in Africa, Nambia. Have you seen the graphic that shows what the countries might be named if #45 were to be asked to list them off the top of his head?

        • Yes, there does seem to be a real desire for the ‘strong ruler’ amongst certain groups – and Trump clearly admires the whole ‘strong leader’ thing himself, hence his admiration of Putin. Gotta admit, if there has to be a strong ruler, I’d rather have Putin than Trump – at least we know Putin won’t start a nuclear war if he wakes up in a bad mood! Haha – I loved Nambia, especially since I reckon you guys need to put a new rule in the Constitution – ‘Presidents may only nuke countries they can point to on a map.’ But I love ‘dotard’ even more… 😀

  6. Having really enjoyed this author’s Rules of Civility, I may well give this one a go at some point. With this in mind, it’s great to read such a considered and balanced review – at least I’ll know what to expect if I decide to take the plunge!

    • I enjoyed Rules of Civility too, and if anything this one is even better written. It was just a pity the politics side of it annoyed me a bit, but I do still think it’s well worth reading. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next…

    • Thank you! 😀 Haha – I’m fairly neutral about the cover, so I’m going to get a cushion and go sit firmly on the fence… 😉 But despite my criticisms the book is enjoyable, so long as you can overlook or ignore the weird political messages…

  7. That was a very fair review. Like you I think I’d be uncomfortable with the positive spin this book is putting on things. And side note, wouldn’t it be nice if people described you as relentlessly whimsical? Hahaha

    • Thank you! Yes, it all struck me as very odd, especially since I’ve been so horrified by a lot of the actual history I’ve been reading about both before and after the revolution. Hahaha – better than gratuitously grim, I suppose… 😉

    • I know what you mean and I did wonder at the beginning if I’d be able to stick it. But I wanted to read it for my Russian challenge so I motored on, and began to enjoy it once I’d got into his rhthym… for a while. And then later it all began to feel like too much again. I wish literary writers would concentrate a bit more on what they’re saying than how they’re saying it sometimes…

  8. I started this one and it pained me to have to let it go, but it felt just … so… slow… I was plodding along and not making much headway, and I’d passed the 50 page mark where I give myself license to give up a book if it’s not doing it for me. I still may try it again sometime, as I really loved his first book. I wondered if the glowing light for the pre-revolutionary days would continue throughout. Lovely review.

    • Thank you! I know what you mean and there were points where I could have given up too, but I wanted to read it because of my Russian challenge so stuck it out. And in the end, I liked it more than not, but the nostalgia for Tsarism meant I couldn’t take it as anything more than light entertainment, I’m afraid. I’ll still look out for his next one though…

  9. Great review! This book has been on my TBR, and I’m glad to read a comprehensive review of the book. I’m still interested in reading the title, but my enthusiasm for it has waned a bit. I’m not always sold on fancy prose, so I wonder if I’ll feel the same as you about it being too much.

    • I’d hate to put you off, though! Loads of people love this for the writing and the character of the Count, but being a political animal I’m always critical if a book gives out a weird political “message” even if it’s kinda inadvertent. I have seen a few people comment on the cleverness of the writing becoming a bit too much though.

  10. An excellent review, FF. I, too, would give it just three-and-a-half stars, after giving Rules of Civility a full five. And this one is better written!

    The problem I found with the book was not political, though. To me, the book spent a couple hundred pages showing us a wonderful rendition of this colorful and likable character, who had nothing to do . . . It was like watching a two- or three-hour Poirot episode in which he doesn’t have a crime to solve. Delightful guy, wonderfully rendered, but where’s the plot? What’s at stake.

    I was absolutely delighted when the end-game finally peeked its head above the bunker. And I felt that part was well executed right to the end. It made me proud of Towles, and a bit concerned about his editor.

    In the end, I don’t think the writer is a political animal. It might appear so given the setting and such, but I don’t see the politics as the point he’s after. I believe he just loves pretty stories with real affection on the page between the characters. I’ll read his next one, I can tell you that.

    • Thanks, Matt! Ha – yes, I rated Rules more highly too, though the writing in this one is better – and he’s found his own voice in this one more too, I think.

      I agree about the lack of plot – to be honest, I might have abandoned it about a third of the way through except that a) I seem to be abandoning so many books at the moment and b) I wanted to read it as part of my Russian revolution reading this year. But it did pick up and I’m glad I stuck with it in the end.

      I think you’re probably right that Towles wasn’t intentionally making any political points, but by picking such a political setting and having the story hang on the Count’s status as an “enemy of the state”, I felt he laid it open to political interpretation – and it just didn’t hang together in that sense. It certainly wasn’t for lack of research – I felt strongly that he knew his stuff about the history and certainly about pre-revolutionary literature. I guess I just don’t think light entertainment and a devastating revolution go together. I’m afraid as they were cooking and eating their delicious meals, I couldn’t forget that at the same time peasants were being driven to cannibalism. I’ll also be reading his next one, though – he’s so accomplished it’s easy to forget he’s only two books in and still honing his craft…

  11. I’m looking forward to reading this one and seeing if I find some of the same issues. I’ve heard such good things about it and I’m not as steeped in Russian history as you are!

    • I hope you do enjoy it – I know it’s had loads of more glowing reviews than mine! I’m always very aware of the politics in lit-fic – it’s just the way I am – and sometimes that can get in the way of just accepting a story for what it is. Certainly this one is very well written and entertaining and not nearly as dark as the setting might imply…

  12. This is a well-written and insightful review, I think. I don’t know if the book could succeed without the device of Count Rostov, a former person, living out a life sentence confined in a gilded cage, as it were. I grew up in a well-to-do suburb, where most of my classmates came from homes of privilege. Their view of poverty and want was fleeting and from a distance; it may not surprise anyone if they only remember the good things from the bad old days, because they never really lived the bad: same for Rostov. Confined as he was, but with the advantages of a liberal education and an elegant lifestyle, he was bound to make unfavorable comparisons between the perfumed patricians and the rough supplanters.

    • Thank you! 😀 I think that’s very true, but it still felt like a missed opportunity to me. I guess I’ve been doing so much reading about the Russian Revolution this year it felt disappointing that he never stepped beyond the doors – I would have found life outside the hotel much more interesting than the cushioned existence inside it. But he is an excellent writer so I’m confident one day he’ll deal with a subject that’s more to my subjective taste…

  13. The Book is charming and beautifully written but I wanted more of the history and less of the quirkiness and fairy tale style story and for me the book just dragged and I just didn’t connect with the story or the characters. This is more about my ability to enjoy this style of story for what it is than the author’s telling of the story as the writing and prose is beautiful but the book was too drawn out for me.

    • I had much the same reaction – it didn’t feel real to me, and the device of never taking him outside of the hotel meant I never felt it gave a good picture of what life was like for people living through this period. But his writing is gorgeous – I’ll still be looking forward to reading his next book, whatever it is!

      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 🙂

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