Review: Amor Towles’s “A Gentleman in Moscow”

by Miles Raymer

Gentleman in Moscow

What does a society desperate to escape monarchic domination do with a plucky, refined member of its extant aristocracy? In Amor Towles’s enchanting portrait of post-revolutionary Russia, the answer is to place him under permanent house arrest in The Metropol, Moscow’s most renowned hotel. He will be stripped of his titles, his luxurious lodgings, and his freedom of movement, but, due to vestigial family wealth, he will not be shot or denied the basic necessities of food and shelter. He will also retain his carefully cultivated charm, a quality that one member of The Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs derides as “the final ambition of the leisure class” (5).

Such is the decade-spanning fate of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the protagonist of A Gentleman in MoscowUndaunted by his sentence, The Count makes the very most of his final ambition, charming the Metropol’s staff and visitors, and readers most of all. An intoxicating cocktail of princely erudition and plain decency, The Count is remarkably likable and easy to root for. His most effective advocate is Towles’s superb prose, which never fails to engender curiosity and empathy for the Count’s coterie and the turbulent historical circumstances in which they find themselves.

The Count’s motto, received from his godfather upon his parents’ untimely death, is that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them” (18). Through his efforts to master the circumstances of his confinement, The Count discovers the joys of service to others, eventually becoming headwaiter in the Metropol’s restaurant. He also befriends a young girl named Nina, who reveals to him the delights and mutual benefits of intergenerational companionship.

Throughout the chaos of early-20th century Russian history, The Count remains cloistered in the Metropol, protected from the harshest vicissitudes of communist oppression. While his fellow citizens struggle to realize their political aspirations, The Count pursues the less ambitious pastimes of intellectual inquiry, fine cuisine, and intimate friendship. The irony is double-bladed, cutting from one side as a celebration of staying true to one’s passions in the face of adversity, and slicing from the other as a symbolic continuation of the injustices that produced the undeserved advantages of The Count and his class.

As The Count ages, Towles’s characterization pushes the novel from “good” into “great” territory. Small events reap large consequences, relationships grow and blossom, and The Count learns and imparts lessons about the indelible imprints of love, the unexpected boons of inconvenience, and the importance of venturing into the unknown to realize one’s true potential. Through the creation of such an exquisite novel, Amor Towles has certainly realized his.

Rating: 9/10