Spoiler Free Review
This is a part of my series on book relating to New York City. In this case the story takes place across the ocean from New York but the author is a longtime resident of the city. Click here to see all posts in this category.
I picked this booked up from the online NYPL on a whim after seeing it in the Barnes and Nobles in Union Square. A fact that I learned after finishing the novel is that the author Amor Towles actually resides in the Gramercy Park area just two blocks east of the Union Square. Knowing that now, I can sense how influences from the author’s surroundings in New York City made their way into this early 20th century Russia based novel. Gramercy Park is an elegant, upscale area with a beautiful park only accessible to those who live in the area and possess one of the 400 keys and pay an annual fee of $4,500. Main character Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a man of class and poise and would not be out of place strolling through the area the author lives.
Having been a member of the bourgeoisie previous to the revolution that created the Soviet Union, Count Rostov was saved from the chopping block only because he charmed his way out of his death sentence. Instead, he was sentenced to live the remainder of his life at the Moscow Metropol Hotel where the government could keep an eye on him. Despite his status as a Former Person, Count Rostov make the best of his situation and steadfastly maintains his “gentlemanly” demeanor as the story progresses through multiple decades.
“Everybody tells you something because they are everybody. But why should one listen to everybody? Did everybody write the Odyssey? Did everybody write the Aeneid?”
AGIM provides a very romanticized view of Russia in the early to mid 20th century. Significant events are usually hinted at instead of explicitly referenced, and some suspension of disbelief is required to fully enjoy the story. This is not to say the characters don’t go through hardships. The character development is top notch and as a reader I felt bonds developing with many of the characters as their backgrounds and mannerisms were fleshed out. Occasionally the author provides an aside about events that take place outside of the hotel to give additional depth to side characters.
The writing is whimsical almost to a fault. At certain times I found it difficult to follow along if I wasn’t fully paying attention, having to go back to re-read certain passages. The humor is smart and often subtle. In my head cannon Count Rostov is a cartoonish caricature of a bourgeoisie, always smartly dressed up walking around with perfect posture. My mind kept going back the Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” when descriptions of the elegant hotel lobby and intricate antiques came up. Despite the main character’s predicament, most of the story has a very uplifting feel to it.
Overall A Gentleman in Moscow was a great comfort read for me especially during COVID-19 related isolation. It took me about a month to get through, reading at most a couple chapters at a time. I found it best suited for short reads especially towards the end where the time jumps are more frequent. The author’s writing style is a joy to read and the evolution the the characters make through time will make you feel nostalgic for places you’ve never been and a time likely before yours.