Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Alexander Rostov was neither scientist nor sage; but at the age of sixty-four he was wise enough to know that life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions. Our faculties wax and wane, our experiences accumulate and our opinions evolve--if not glacially, then at least gradually. Such that the events of an average day are as likely to transform who we are as a pinch of pepper is to transform a stew.
In the early days of the Soviet Union, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to spend the rest of his life confined in the Metropol hotel. He is banished to an attic room and spends the next thirty years witnessing history through the microcosm of hotel guests. Early on he befriends Nina, a young hotel guest "with a penchant for yellow," and later, when she disappears into the Soviet machine, he raises her daughter, Sofia. His relationship with both these young women forms the emotional core of the novel.

Towles is a masterful creator of worlds; almost the entire novel takes place within the walls of the Metropol, but the detail infused to both the setting and the characters makes it feel like an entire universe. There is some heavy handed use of simile (as in the quote above), but once I got into the rhythm of Towles' prose, it didn't bother me as much as it sometimes does.

As a member of the aristocracy, Count Rostov has a unique perspective on the changes going on around him. While the novel does a fabulous job of building up the world of the Metropol, the reality of the world outside is a thinly developed presence. On some level, I'm sure this was purposeful: Rostov's only exposure to the events of that world is heavily influenced by the filter of the hotel. He encounters dignitaries and higher ups in the Party as well as international visitors, and his only experiences with everyday citizens come through his interactions with the staff (whose ranks he eventually joins). The experience of those characters as citizens under an oppressive regime is only vaguely alluded to at best. Rostov loses loved ones to the purges, and wives of hotel employees wait in bread lines, but those are the only real references to the various indignities of life in the Soviet Union that we get.

Overall, this was an immersive, enjoyable read. Rostov's ability to grow and change without ever leaving the confines of a hotel is both impressive and believable, and his love for both Nina and Sofia is endearing. Towles created a universe here that is captivating and appealing, but the fact that it existed within the horrors of the Soviet Union without fully engaging with them gave me pause.

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