As a reader, I find few things more satisfying than stumbling upon a novel expecting nothing but a pleasant diversion and instead falling completely in love with it. My husband found A Gentleman in Moscow in a Little Free Library and took it home because the description and the cover appealed to him. (I probably wouldn’t have picked it up, though it does have a nice cover.) He described the story as “charming” and recommended I try it. We were both thrilled that I was soon entranced by this pure delight of a novel.
In 1922, Russian Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest in the once-lavish Metropol Hotel. He’s fortunate that they didn’t simply shoot him, though the tribunal assures him that if he ever, in his life, steps outside the hotel, that’s exactly what will happen. Resigned to his sentence, Rostov settles into his new life, limited though it is. The novel spans 32 years, with Rostov observing the changes to his country from the tiny haven of the Metropol, through newspapers and contact with the hotel’s staff and many guests.
This book is so damn charming in part because the main character is so damn charming. Even the transcript of the tribunal is forced to acknowledge this fact: “I have no doubt, Count Rostov, that many in the gallery are surprised to find you so charming; but I, for one, am not surprised in the least. History has shown charm to be the final ambition of the leisure class.” (In my head, I couldn’t help but envision M. Gustave, the impeccable concierge played with such allure by Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel. True, M. Gustave is not a man of leisure, but neither does the Count remain a man of leisure for long!) Rostov doesn’t carry the novel alone, however. It’s brimming with wonderful supporting characters: a chef with high standards and a bit of a temper; an actress who is, at first blush, rather haughty but proves to have more depth; a friendly American diplomat; a compassionate seamstress; a nine-year-old girl whose curiosity about the Count’s mustache leads to a lasting friendship.
If Rostov’s interactions with this host of characters were all there was to this novel, it would still be delightful. But, above all else, this novel has soul. It touches on themes of love, purpose, sacrifice, and identity. It mourns not so much the loss of a way of life, but our inability to recognize that loss while it’s happening. “For years now, with a bit of a smile, the Count had remarked that this or that was behind him. . . .But in so doing, he had never really believed it. In his heart of hearts, he had imagined that, even if unattended to, these aspects of his life were lingering somewhere on the periphery, waiting to be recalled. But looking at the bottle in his hand, the Count was struck by the realization that, in fact, it was all behind him.” And yet the Count not only accepts this change to his situation, in some ways he rejoices in it. Without spoiling any plot points, I can sum up the novel with an observation he makes to one of the other characters: “Since the day I was born, there was only one time when Life needed me to be in a particular place at a particular time. . . . And I would not accept the Tsarship of all the Russias in exchange for being in this hotel at that hour.”
I don’t wish to leave you with the impression that this novel is all quirky characters and philosophizing. There is, indeed, a thrilling climax that caused me to recall previous chapters with admiration as I recognized what a true craftsman Amor Towles is. Small details and anecdotes from earlier in the novel come into play in ways that would have made Chekov proud. As a Casablanca fan, I was also excited by some allusions to that film (as well as some other classics); a moment in the penultimate chapter delighted me so much that, had this been a movie, I would have applauded. I almost applauded anyway, but that would have required me to put my book down.
I can’t emphasize enough how much I loved this novel. It soothed my soul in exactly the right way at exactly the right time when I didn’t expect it. This kind of serendipity, well, for me that’s one of the purest joys of reading.