Wed, 21 Nov 2018
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I HOLD my hand up right now and say I loved this book – in fact, I stunned my book group (who view me as the harshest critic among us) with my enthusiasm for this gentle, at times fairy tale-like story of Count Rostov, who, confined to the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, discovers a whole new way of life and set of friends.
I was a little sceptical to start with – it is not a short book at nearly 500 pages and I wondered how interesting a count shuffling around in his attic could be.
I needn’t have worried – Rostov makes full use of the hotel and in that microcosm he makes new friends, learns new skills and adapts to his new way of life with remarkably good grace.
Except that it shouldn’t be a surprise. The count has impeccable manners and has an air and poise about him that means he can face any situation.
The other characters in the hotel are brilliantly portrayed, from the seamstress Maria, to his ‘comrades in arms’ head chef Emile and maître d’ Andrey. Together with Rostov, these three men form an invincible triumvirate – running the hotel restaurant with aplomb and making the communist supporters look increasingly ridiculous.
Because of his knowledge of food and drink and table etiquette, the count becomes a popular waiter. There is, of course, the requisite ‘baddy’ who eventually becomes manager of the hotel and does everything in his pathetic power to thwart the count.
In one hilarious scene, the powers that be order the staff to remove all the labels from the wine bottles because they don’t want any elitism – red or white will do. The count is horrified – not because he doesn’t want ‘the peasants’ to drink the fine wine, but because he is sensitive to which wines work well with which particular dish, but of course his knowledge is such that he can pretty much tell the right wines from the shapes of the bottles.
There are countless other characters in the mix – an American who he befriends, a Russian who likes to converse and learn from him, a young girl who first opens his eyes to the joys of the hotel and who, when she grows up, entrusts him with her precious daughter Sofia, who in turn influences the count’s choices and, perhaps most importantly, his old friend the tortured poet Mikhail, from a much lower social class, but a catalyst in the story arc.
The book spans about 30 years and the struggles in the Kremlin are simmering away following the death of Stalin. Towles deftly intertwines the political manoeuvring that eventually sees Nikita Khrushchev take the reins of power into the count’s own story.
Not one character in the book is surplus to requirement and each plays a part in the ultimate denouement, which is as satisfying an ending as you are likely to get.
Going back to my book club, one of their criticisms was that it took a while to get into the book and that all the action seem to happen towards the end and very quickly.
For me, the rhythm of the book was part of its charm and I was intrigued to read what Amor Towles himself wrote about it: From the day of the Count’s house arrest, the chapters advance by a doubling principle: one day after arrest, two days after, five days, ten days, three weeks, six weeks, three months, six months, one year, two years, four years, eight years, and sixteen years after arrest. At this midpoint, a halving principle is initiated with the narrative leaping to eight years... four years until, two years, one year, six months, three months, six weeks, three weeks, ten days, five days, two days, one day and finally, the turn of the revolving door.
Another personal mark of a successful book is how real the characters feel and Count Rostov and his gang are remarkable creations, which live on in my imagination. If you’re looking for a bit of escapism, then I recommend you enter the doors of the Hotel Metropol.
For more book reviews go to https://www.newburytoday.co.uk/section/119/books