This book fell in my hands after Bill Gates recommended it as one of his favourite summer readings. At the beginning I thought it was a Spy’s thriller (one of my favourite genres) and that is why I ran out to buy it.
There is this shock when you realize that even before opening a book you have had a misconception. A Gentleman in Moscow was not about spies. Yes, you could feel them breathing in the main character’s neck from time to time but the story is not typical. As I was expecting the usual spy thriller, the book seemed slow and calm at the beginning. It was good that I decided to go up to the end, otherwise I would have missed a wonderful piece of literature.
Everything starts on the 1920s in Russia. Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat, with a perfect European education, the best manners and a member of the high society, is condemned to indefinite house arrest, guilty as charged for writing the anti-revolutionary and very popular poem ‘Where is it now’. But ‘home’ happens to be The Metropole Hotel, where Count Rostov has been living in a suite for the past four years. The suite is gone, as well as most of his assets (the Count was very cleaver hiding out the rest) and now he is living in a tiny room on the 6th floor. The things he took from his suite are his companions for the years to come: a very heavy desk, two elephant lamps, the portrait of his sister Helena and other personal belongings.
The set-up of the novel: All the events of this book happen at this same spot. The Metropole Hotel. This is my first highlight, as I think only a great writer could pull up a brilliant story about someone’s life in one and only place and keep the reader interested. This was brilliant. Second, the timing of the story. This, opposite to the physical place, moves fast, starting in the 1920s and later meeting the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. What is beautiful about this is that Towles condensed the entire life of Count Rostov during this years, without even forgetting that time was passing for other characters and most importantly, that Russia was going through a lot of political changes at the same time. After my misconception of thinking that everything in Russia is about spies, I educated myself on Russian history, society and internal politics.
And how not to fall in love with Count Alexander Rostov. A true gentleman, a wise man. The Count didn’t really have a job because as he said ‘there is no business of gentlemen to have occupations’, but it didn’t mean he was a lazy person (and actually after many years he became the ‘Maître’ of the Boyarsky, the most elegant restaurant at the hotel in which he had been served for as long as he lived there). But Count Rostov main skill was his liaising. He was friends with every employee at the hotel, the guests and even the representatives of the same revolutionary party that put him in prison. His ‘delightful’ expressions while talking reminded me of these gentlemen you see walking on the streets, wearing always elegant hats and with perfectly combined outfits. They would always say hello with a little inclination towards yourself and would take off the hat. Their way of speaking would seem old fashioned and extremely polite. And this was Count Alexander Rostov. He had a knowledge of wine and food like nobody else I would know or heard about, and he would have a couple of drinks, maybe too many, every day. I would have been probably doing the same if I were a prisoner in a five stars hotel.
There are many beautiful, well-constructed characters along this story, but my favourites go to the women in his life. Nina, the smartest girl he met when she was nine and that became one of his best friends. Sofia, Nina’s daughter, who changed his life forever. Marina, the seamstress, who listened to all his crazy adventures and accompanied him in every important event of his life and Anna, his long-time sweetheart, an actress, spoiled at the beginning, intelligent, rich, famous and outsmart at the end, who plays an important role in saving the Count and Sofia from the evil forces that were about to drag them away.
I didn’t know the author, Amor Towles, before I read this book. An American writer with a MA in English from Stanford University. He worked all his life in investment to later become a writer. I give Mr. Towles a hundred points for his diction, vocabulary, political knowledge of the XX Century Russia, and for the way he invented and developed these perfect characters from beginning to end.
An absolute beautiful story, 100% recommended!