A Gentleman in Moscow is a gem of a book that could be just as easily double as a self-help book about how to live life with a positive attitude despite challenging circumstances.
The mere suggestion of the self-help genre would undoubtedly ruin the experience, but thematically, it fits. This novel about a Russian aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov, confined to a hotel in Moscow for his entire adult life due to “revolutionary writings” (aka: a poem), offers such beautiful language, Towles transports readers into another world. Through the Count’s eyes and experiences, we see the transformation of Russia, from the early 1920’s to the mid 1950’s–the rise of comrades, the brutality of the leadership, and the humanity of many people. Though the Count is confined to his tiny attic room plus the hotel’s common areas, he creates a world that feels far larger, and much of the time it’s easy to forget he has never left the physical building as the story seems to grow outward rather than inward. He leaves the hotel in so many other ways through relationships, stories, and shared experiences.
This is a book to be savored. I reread many sections, sometimes rereading single sentences so beautifully written. And such compelling characters: Nina, Sophia, the actress Anna, old soul Mishka, Emile, the dining room chef and his staff, and a cast of others, all of whom pull us toward them with magnetic personalities.
I found great solace in the Count’s attitude toward life. He is in many ways a prisoner, yet he seems nothing less than a man full of life, wisdom, and energy. These are a few his lines that I hope to abide by:
“After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us aboutanyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour” (120).
“For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”
“Oftentimes, our best course of action feels objectionable at the first step. In fact, it almost always does” (416).
“If one does not master one’s circumstances, one is bound to be mastered by them” (419).
This is a book that could be reread many times, and one in which I could probably delve deeper with each read. I have not read his previous novel, Rules of Civility, but I think I’ll put it on my list.