Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

While the Western world may primarily think of the First World War when thinking about 1917, that year also brought the Russian Revolution and the abdication of the Tsar, Nicholas II, eventually leading to the executions of the Russian Royal Family, the creation of the Soviet Union, and the rise of communism. The hardships faced by the Imperial Russian Army during the First World War, as they struggled against Germany and suffered massive losses with severe food shortages, is seen as a mitigating factor in the Russian Revolution. The majority of the Russian population had little to nothing to eat and felt it was the Tsar’s fault. The divide between Russia’s working classes and the aristocracy, who were seen to have too much available to them, appeared to be widening and the proletariat had had enough.  The Revolution of 1917, the overthrow of tsarism, and the creation of the USSR in 1922 set the stage for Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow.

A Gentleman in Moscow | kathleenhelen

In Moscow, in 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to live out the remainder of his life under house arrest at his current address, the Metropol Hotel, an elegant and impressive hotel within sight of the Kremlin. He is unceremoniously moved from his fourth-floor suite of rooms to a tiny room on the sixth floor, originally intended to house the servants of grand aristocrats who would have stayed at the hotel in its early years. A Gentleman in Moscow follows Rostov through his daily life in the Metropol Hotel as the years pass outside its walls and try to creep their way slowly into the historic edifice.

Towles first captivated readers with his jazz-age, Manhattan-set debut novel Rules of Civility and did not disappoint in this follow-up, five years later. After reading Rules of Civility earlier this year, I was so eager to get my hands on Towles’ second novel that I splurged on the hardcover edition, despite trying to keep my spending in check (and it was totally worth it).  The novel explores the idea that short, specific moments in our lives define the course of our narrative and that those moments are brought about by the series of small, seemingly inconsequential decisions that are made leading up to and then placing us in those situations.

Through exquisitely written prose, Towles creates an enchanting and captivating world from the everyday goings-on of the staff and inhabitants of the Metropol Hotel. The novel spans thirty years, from the 1920’s until the 1950’s and conveys the historical events happening on the other side of the hotel’s doors through Rostov’s interactions as he remains confined to the hotel, making this novel a remarkable work of historical fiction. The novel is mesmerizing, delightful, and engaging, despite the fear and peril that lays below the surface of many of the interactions and the dangers waiting just outside the hotel's doors.

I would absolutely recommend this novel, especially to those who enjoyed Rules of Civility or who have a particular interest in Russian history. Though taking place after the Russian Revolution, and making many nods to the communist system in place in Russia between 1922 and the 50’s when the novel ends, the Metropol Hotel is very reminiscent of the Russian Empire and the style, elegance, and grandeur that defines it.

I gave this novel 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads because I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt swept up into the world Towles created inside the historical Metropol Hotel, which is, in fact, a real hotel in Moscow. The Metropol Moscow Hotel was built in 1905 and still stands today. From what I can tell from perusing the website, you can even rent one of the rooms Count Rostov supposedly lived in (the size of approximately 150 square feet matches) for about $255 Canadian a night.

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