A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles spent over a year on the New York Times Best Sellers list. The novel is about a Russian nobleman who was forced to live within the confines of a Moscow hotel on orders of the new Bolshevik government. It is an elegant, charming jewel of a novel, a sort of literary Faberge egg. It is also the most polarizing piece of fiction I’ve come across in decades.
If I were to cast a movie of Count Alexander Rostov, the gentleman of the title, I’d give the part to someone like David Niven. To those of us old enough to remember, or TMC movie fans, David Niven was a movie star from ‘40s through the ‘70s. He played the consummate English gentleman: urbane, unflappable, loyal to a fault. He dressed impeccably, charmed the ladies and always had a witty response. Other than being Russian, this is pretty much a description of Alexander Rostov.
I’m generally not a big fan of this type of man. I’m a sucker for the grand gesture, for the heart on the sleeve, weep into his beer kinda guy, like a Clark Gable. Or the socially awkward, nerdy, Boy Scout type. Jimmy Stewart comes to mind.
The set-up is that, in 1922, the Bolshevik Revolutionary government deems Rostov an enemy of the Russian state and designates him an “internal exile.” His place of exile is the Metropol, a luxury hotel in the heart of Moscow. He is already living there in a spacious suite with chandeliers, a dining room and a salon. He is unceremoniously moved to a single room in the attic.
Rostov makes the best of the situation. He parts with his furniture, books and keepsakes with a philosophical shrug. “But, of course, a thing is just a thing.” In fact, he rationalizes that he has always loved train travel and boat travel precisely because of the limit on space. He compares his reduced living situation to Captain Nemo’s adventures on the Nautilus.
But Rostov is not entirely bereft. He still has his set of 52 crystal wineglasses in a variety of designs so that the each kind of wine or spirits can be drunk in its proper glass. He has his grandfather’s Louis XVI desk whose hollow legs contain gold coins. And he has at least a few of his books.
The hotel has its own barber shop, a bar, a casual eatery called the Piazza and a formal restaurant held to be the best restaurant in Moscow. It has a full complement of kitchen and wait staff as well as the barber, a seamstress, the bell captain, the concierge and the bellhops. So, yes, he has lost a lot—his freedom the most severe—yet, his life is still better than most.
He becomes friends with a precocious nine-year-old girl, emotionally abandoned by her Soviet bureaucrat father on assignment in Moscow. Inexplicably, she has a pass key to the hotel. The two of them conspire to explore all the nooks and crannies of the hotel. They visit the boiler room, a storage room with items left by patrons, from where Rostov reclaimed some of his belongings, the place where all the hotel banquet dishes were kept and many other rooms. They also sneak into guests’ rooms, including Rostov’s old suite. They gleefully spy on gatherings of genteel ladies as well as eavesdrop on meetings of various Bolshevik committees.
These excursions could only be called adventures, and I was reminded of Eloise at the Plaza Hotel. This puzzled me as I thought the references to the ways of the Russian nobility and the one-eyed cat named Kutuzov were meant to lead me to think of War and Peace, not Eloise. Where was this book going?
A year passes. Another year. Four years. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Outside the hotel, Stalin rose to power. Five Year Plans devastated the economy. World War II came and went. A power struggle followed Stalin’s death.
Inside the hotel, Rostov faced adversity as well. One small catastrophe was the removal of all the labels on the wine bottles in the spirit of egalitarianism. It became impossible to pair food with the recommended wine. In a tsunami-proportion change in his life, Rostov unexpectedly became the caretaker of a five-year-old child. With aplomb and wry philosophical musings, Rostov overcomes adversity with ingenuity, physical dexterity and the help of his many friends.
About those friends. Despite calling him “Your Eminence,” the staff at the hotel genuinely likes Rostov. As the years pass, he develops especially close relationships with the seamstress, the chef and the maitre d’. He is also on excellent terms with the desk captain, the concierge and the dozens of workers needed to keep a large hotel running. They figure out ingenious ways to get around the common enemy: the bureaucratic hotel manager.
Due to its excellence, important guests from foreign diplomats to movie stars to government apparatchiks stay at the Metropol. Rostov is a sought-after conversationalist because of his charm, wit, and broad knowledge of literature, history and the arts. He becomes friends with many of these guests, including a romantic liaison.
In an ironic way, Rostov is the most egalitarian person of them all. After all, it is the job of a gentleman to make others feel at ease. Rostov could adapt to any company he is with. He remembered his grandfather telling him about Darwin’s “moths of Manchester.” The moths that had dark wings to match the soot of Manchester survived to propagate. As Rostov put it, “It is the business of gentlemen to change” with the times.
Lest you think that the story is just a pastiche of amusing incidents, descriptions of opulent settings and scrumptious food and wine, wry philosophical asides and War and Peace-esque anecdotes from Rostov’s life, let me assure you that, like any good caper movie, it all ties together in the end. Almost every relationship Rostov becomes involved in, from the conductor of the orchestra at the Piazza to the American vending machine salesman, and every bit of information that has dropped into his lap—the old copies of the Baedaker travel guides as well as his barber’s favorite hair dye—play a part in the final, winner-takes-all escapade.
Among my friends, there is a huge chasm between the fans of this book and the
detractors. The fans outnumber the disparagers about two to one, which would jibe with the long time the book spent on the New York Times Best Sellers list. The ravers are so enthusiastic that they bring up A Gentleman in Moscow without prompting. My financial adviser recommended the book when it first came out in 2016. Yoga friend Nancy called it a page-turner. A different Nancy was breathless with praise for the language in the book.
Birding friend Anne spoke in her soft Southern drawl that the book had to be one of her favorites of all time. Hearing this, another birder, Bob, agreed. At this point, his wife Barb sighed and said she couldn’t even finish it. Tennis friend Kathy loved the book so much that she lent it to tennis instructor Liz. Liz returned the book unfinished. She shook her head and sighed, “I give up.”
My theory, and my reaction while tearing through the book, is that it depends on how willing you are to suspend disbelief. You have to accept the premise of someone being “imprisoned” in a luxury hotel. Not only is the prisoner talented and witty and charming, but he also has more money than he’ll ever need. On top of that, his friends all turn out to be loyal and extraordinarily competent. And the icing on the cake—he could get a baby sitter any time he needed one. This is escapism of the highest order, albeit charming, urbane and witty.
If you don’t buy into these assumptions, then the book is just a series of digressions—some too cute, some arcane—slowing down an unlikely plot. If that’s the case, all the erudition about literature and history, the depth of knowledge of wines and music and the charming and witty repartee are irrelevant. For people who are looking for a filling breakfast, a Faberge egg is not satisfying.
Tell me: Are you thumbs up or thumbs down?