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Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

"If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them" – so was the advice from Count Rostov’s grandfather, and a foreshadowing for this entire the novel. It is June 1922, and with A Gentleman in Moscow we find ourselves at The Metropol Hotel in Moscow after the Russian Revolution. The protagonist, Alexander Ilych Rostov – a member of the upper classes – has been tried and sentenced to stay in the glorious hotel for the rest of his life. He loses most of his material belongings and his freedom outside the hotel, but he gains something he never needed before: a purpose. Gone are the lavish parties, the concerts and days of idleness at the family country house; replaced with genuine friendships (hotel staff and guests alike) and a sense of belonging. But just when the Count is adjusting to his new world, a young five-year-old girl disrupts his life all over again.

I loved this book so much, I have just finished reading it for the second time. Amor Towles writes with a knowledge, style and humour that is a joy to read. The third person narration feels like a friend hovering over your shoulder, challenging you to guess what could possibly happen next… and yet it all seems so credible, weaving fiction with some harsh realities of early twentieth-century Russia.

The theme of adjustment runs not only throughout the book, but into the hotel, up the stairs (two steps at a time) and right to the top of the belfry where, on the sixth floor, the Count now resides in his small one hundred square foot room with minimal furniture. The contrast in imagery ­between ornate and spartan, extravagant and meagre are exquisitely clear. And we witness not only the Count, but the hotel, the people of Russia and the nation trying to adapt to change, always trying to achieve a little more with a little less.

Towles captures these changes over five volatile decades of communist rule, skipping from one day, one week, one month and one year to the next, effortlessly. As Marina, the seamstress at the hotel, aptly observes “You must trust that life will find her in time. For eventually, it finds us all.”

The metaphors are also a delight: a passkey that gives the Count freedom within the hotel, bread that represents Russian tradition and humbler origins, and the one-eyed cat a reminder that we can’t see everything as it is at any one time.

I’ve read a few not so positive reviews, citing that the book is boring because it muses too much about philosophical matters, or because it portrays an inaccurate account of Russia during this period. For me, I enjoyed the musings on life and purpose, and – while I’m not a historian – I’m prepared to allow for a few discrepancies if they make for a good story.

If you enjoy a witty read, or stories about the purpose and meaning of a life, or just the inner workings and gossip of an international hotel, then you’ll like this historical fiction set in twentieth-century Russia.

I’ll end with a quote that sums up the book and how our perceptions of people change over time, just as we change ourselves: “By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration.”

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