Friday, February 10, 2017

Historical Fiction: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I first took notice of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles when it was nominated for Best Historical Fiction in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards, although after reading the premise I immediately wished I had taken notice of it much sooner. For me to find historical fiction not centered around World War II seems to be a small miracle these days, so this book, with its focus on a man under house arrest in early 20th century Moscow, easily made it onto my to-read list.

The Situation: In the summer of 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest by a Bolshevik Tribunal and ordered to never leave the Metropol Hotel in Moscow under the penalty of death. The Count had only recently returned to Moscow from Paris, but now he can never leave a building, much less the country, or he will be shot. While such a sentence would devastate almost anyone, the Count seems to approach the situation with the same class and good humor he attended his trial, somehow managing to not give the authorities the satisfaction of seeing him downcast or hurt. Even when he is moved from his previous hotel room to a closet of only 100 square feet, the Count shows no distress. Instead, he simply immerses himself into the hotel and its inner workings, as well as the people who run it. 

The Problem: While Russia, and indeed the entire world, continues to change all around the Metropol Hotel, the Count's life continues from year to year with very little change, at least in comparison. Over the years he will receive visits from old friends, receive news of the deaths of others, experience his own moments of despair, and even eventually become a waiter in the hotel's best restaurant. His one constant source of agony will be a zealous comrade who insists on doing what little he can to make the lives of those around him incredibly difficult, first and foremost being the Count's. But when a small child is left in the Count's care, everything pales in comparison to the duty he feels to give her the best future possible, despite his circumstances. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in Russia during the 1920s thru to the 1950s. Most of the novel stays focused on the Count, though there are a few chapters that will follow some of the people he has come into contact with, such as an actress, an old friend from the Count's childhood, and of course Sofia, the Count's adopted daughter. It is the Bolsheviks who sentence the Count to house arrest, and all because of a poem he wrote that appears to be a call to action against the Bolshevik Revolution, although the Count's insistence to make jokes during his own trial certainly did not help matters. The Count will end up occupying the Metropol Hotel through two World Wars, and will have to witness the myriad of ways Moscow will change under communist rule from the confines of a building. As grim as that may sound, the Count is able to approach his situation (for the most part) with humor, and relies on his good manners and breeding to bring him through almost any situation, no matter how small or great the annoyance. Even confined to one building, a lot can happen and change for a person in 30 years.

My Verdict: I need only say this: had I read this book before the voting for the Goodreads Choice Awards began, I certainly would have voted for it. To me, Towles pulls off something that I would think is incredibly hard to do. He wrote a book that reads like a Russian classic (like from Tolstoy or Dostoevsky), despite having been written in 2016. And he did so while also somehow avoiding the confusion most American readers encounter regarding Russian names in literature, while also acknowledging that difficulty and how hard it can be to get past. There are footnotes that are not annoying or interrupting, or even all that frequent. But more than anything, the characters are delightful and well-presented, while the story itself is funny, engaging, interesting, and captivating. I could not recommend this book enough.

Favorite Moment: When the Count, along with the maitre d, and head chef, manages to pull together an extravagant meal for the three of them despite many of the ingredients being hard to come by in communist Russia.

Favorite Character: Though the Count is fairly young when he is first sentenced, he is already wise, observant, well-mannered, and maintains a great sense of humor. He will actually learn to loosen up even more as he gets older, while also becoming more accustomed to making mistakes and realizing that other people do know better than him, sometimes.

Recommended Reading: If I had to pick one Russian classic to recommend to someone, it would be The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. However, I am a somewhat realistic person, and I realize most people are not going to read something nearly 800 pages long, so I will also recommend Crime and Punishment, which is a much more reasonable length. But for a modern historical fiction book, I recommend Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly.        

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