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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is set entirely and exclusively in a hotel.

But before you conclude that such a confined narrative space couldn’t possibly hold your attention for 495 pages, think Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

When the hotel in question is a place which, ever since its opening in 1905, had been ‘a gathering spot for the glamorous, influential and erudite’, there is no shortage of characters and incidents on which to effortlessly hang the narrative.

Where A Gentleman in Moscow differs from Wes Anderson’s movie, is that the central character cannot ever leave the hotel because to do so would result in his death by firing squad.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles


Synopsis of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

In June 1922, the Bolsheviks declare Count Alexander Rostov an unrepentant aristocrat, a crime for which he would expect to be lined up against a wall.

However, the Count penned a poem in his younger days which was considered by many to be a call to arms. Given those early revolutionary ideals, and despite his now obvious aristocratic lifestyle, the sentence is reduced to that of lifetime house arrest.

The ‘house’ in question is the Hotel Metropol located on Moscow’s Red Square and home to what is considered the finest restaurant in Moscow, if not the whole of Russia, the Boyarsky. From the moment the Count is escorted back to the hotel, he cannot step foot outside of the establishment again for the rest of his life or his sentence will revert back to death.

Residing in the luxurious Suite 317 and resigned to the impending, more-inconvenient-than-gruelling confinement, the Count remains wittily upbeat, until he learns that the tribunal have chosen somewhat more modest lodgings in the hotel for his confinement. With his military escort, the Count is taken to an attic room formerly housing servants and now stacked with decades of junk and dust.

Thus begins our journey with Count Rostov.

For a lesser man, the story may have ended there as a lifetime of tedium ensued, but Count Rostov is an old school aristocrat, and it will take more than a fall from opulence to keep his spirits down. Little by little, using his connections, his charm, and his money, the Count manages to establish a supply chain for some of his indispensable luxuries such as fine linens, his favourite soaps, and his daily mille-feuille.

What ensues is a captivating, witty and utterly absorbing read as we meet the many characters who work in, and visit, Hotel Metropol during Russia’s turbulent post-revolution years. Amor Towles’ language is rich; his characters are complex and endearing; and his wit is understated and flawless with the Count’s whip-smart observations peppering the narrative while absurd incidents play out in the various rooms of the hotel.

My review of A Gentleman in Moscow

From the moment Towles first introduces us to Count Alexander Rostov, we are drawn to him. His privileged upbringing has bestowed such an easy superiority about him that it rises above arrogance and is simply cool. Alexander Rostov knows everything there is to know about fine wines, gourmet food, and all of life’s ‘little luxuries’; he’s the Russian version of Humphrey Bogart but without the rough edges.

It isn’t long into his confinement that the Count meets the irrepressible, nine-year-old Nina Kulikova, a young girl confined to the hotel by her father while he’s ‘temporarily’ stationed in Moscow. With Nina as his guide, the Count discovers rooms in the hotel whose existence he had never hitherto considered:

Of course, exclaimed the Count to himself. Within The Metropol there were rooms behind rooms and doors behind doors. The linen closet. The laundries. The pantries. The switchboard!

It was like sailing on a steamship. Having enjoyed an afternoon shooting clay pigeons off the starboard bow, a passenger dresses for dinner, dines at the Captain’s table, outplays the cocky French fellow at baccarat, and then strolls under the stars on the arm of a new acquaintance – all the while congratulating himself that he has made the most of a journey at sea. But in point of fact, he has only exposed himself to a glimpse of life on the ship – having utterly ignored those lower levels that teem with life and make the voyage possible.

Nina had not contented herself with the views from the upper decks. She had gone below. Behind, Around. About. In the time that Nina had been in the hotel, the walls had not grown inward, they had grown outward, expanding in scope and intricacy. In her first weeks, the building had grown to encompass the life of two city blocks. In her first months, it had grown to encompass half of Moscow. If she lived in the hotel long enough, it would encompass all of Russia.

It’s these richly descriptive passages that give us such an insight into the mind of Count Rostov and by association, that of pre-Revolution Russia. Amongst the staff we encounter the various elements of Soviet society, like The Bishop, a waiter and ardent Bolshevik who the Count dislikes intensely because he’s bad at his job. Seeing Rostov as representative of the old order, the feeling is mutual, which is unfortunate as The Bishop rises through the ranks of staff to ultimately become the hotel manager.

Like the Bolshevik, the Bishop is so obsessed with tearing down the old order that he even sees keeping a wine list as being contrary to the spirit of the new Soviet regime. In his political fervour, he has the labels removed from all the wine bottles in order to equalise them. As no one now knows whether a bottle is one of the cheapest the hotel stocks, or a rare vintage, chaos and farce ensue.

By contrast, in Osip Glebnikov, a former Colonel of the Red Army and now Chief Administrator of the secret police, we see a more sympathetic and supportive side to the new regime. Recognising Count Rostov’s impeccable knowledge and breeding, Glebnikov pays him to tutor him in French and English. Through their conversations as they watch Hollywood movies together, we come to understand the inadequacies and inequalities of the old order and the need for revolution.

But above all the political undercurrents, this novel is a pure joy to read. Towles’ writing shines like a beacon, lighting up every page, every paragraph, every line. So that when the final chapter is read, there’s only one thing to do – immediately purchase another of his novels.


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