Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

"A Gentleman In Moscow" by Amor Towles

Reviewed by Mark Billingsley


 William Blake famously wrote, "To see a world in a grain of sand,/And heaven in a wild flower,/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,/and eternity in an hour." This will become Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov's daily challenge and his lifelong campaign, to see the whole world as defined by the confines of a single building, living out his days under house arrest in the glorious and historic Hotel Metropol for the insidious crime of writing a poem. Amor Towles has created a character of supreme intelligence and wit, a man of integrity and honor. A gentleman in the truest sense of the world, whose misfortune it was to have been visited by his muse in the tumultuous times after the Bolshevik Revolution, and so inspired to pen a poem. This poem may or may not have called into question the rightness of the aforementioned revolution, and may or may not have been "a call to action" (though all true poetry is just that) but the staunch protectors of the common weal, and the proletariat heaven that was Russia in the Roaring 20s, were taking no chances, so the Count was brought up on charges of sedition. Though they would have preferred to stand Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov against the wall, and shoot him for the sheer audacity of writing questionable poetry, their hands were stayed by some of those in power who considered Count Rostov a hero of the Russia of an earlier time. So he would live, with the admonition that if he ever dared to step past the threshold of his beloved hotel, he would be shot. 
So the Count will no longer enjoy his morning perambulations through the heart and soul of Moscow, his visits to the countryside, his peregrinations to Europe and beyond. He will not even be allowed to continue to live in his opulent rooms with grand windows overlooking Theater Square, instead he will be consigned to a small cramped room in the attic, beneath the confining eaves of the roof and containing  a single window "the size of a postage stamp". 
Towles has populated The Metropol Hotel with an outstanding cast of intriguing and fascinating characters, and Count Rostov respects and cherishes them, even those he must contend against, as well he should, for they will be his life-long companions. There are those that think that because the Count has been sequestered behind his beloved hotel that he will be denied communication with the wider world, that his contributions and effect will be constrained by his elegant incarceration and, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

This is only Amor Towles second book his debut novel "The Rules Of Civility" was also a New York Times bestseller and has posted strong sales at Explore since its release five years ago. "The Rules Of Civility" is a lovely coming of age novel of a young woman in Manhattan in the late 1930s. I have yet to read "Civility" but after reading "A Gentleman In Moscow" it has been added to my must-read list.
Towles has shown himself to be a strong writer with a superlative grasp of detail, pacing and ambience, an exquisite sense of time and space. It should also be noted that he doesn't just create characters that the reader becomes invested in or attached to, he creates characters that readers love and are devoted to. I haven't received such positive, unsolicited reviews of a book by customers since Anthony Doerr's "All The Light We Cannot See", and for many of the same reasons. "A Gentleman In Moscow" is an absolute jewel of a book; captivating, extravagant, multifaceted. 
I would like to suggest, as the winter storms continue to roll in and blanket our beautiful world in gorgeous whiteness that you should avail yourself of a little quiet time, brew a pot of tea, warm up a snifter of brandy, sit by the fire and allow Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov to give you a guided tour of his magnificent hotel and share the warm embrace of his dearest friends. 

-- Mark Billingsley