a bookclique pick by Jessica Flaxman
Did you love The Grand Budapest Hotel, with its quirky characters and old world charm? Do you like stories about small physical spaces made large by imagination and the resilient characters inhabiting them? Do you think it’s interesting to watch an aristocrat come down in the world while also moving up in a spiritual, if not a literal, sense? Are you a fan of Russian history? If you answered yes to any of the above, then Amor Towles’ captivating A Gentleman in Moscow will be one of your favorite books this year. With lavish details and good pacing, this novel is a balm for whatever ails you. Count Alexander Rostov, the eponymous gentleman, is a relic from another time, a wealthy man about town who cherishes the finer things in life and feels no shame in his privilege. He enjoys his food and his drink, appreciates arts and literature, pays attention to what others wear and how he dresses, and makes and keeps friends easily. From young girls wanting to know about what it’s really like to be a princess, to actresses wanting to know what it’s like to be a Count’s lover, this gentleman draws people to him like a magnet—despite the fact that he has essentially been sentenced to life in prison. Perhaps that’s because his prison is Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, where he once lived in spacious quarters, but now must make due with a gilded cage on the top floor. On the face of things, the good Count is locked away for writing a poem in 1913 that the new government takes issue with. But Rostov’s real crime is being a relic of czarist Russia. During his “trial” in 1922, it is clear that the interrogating officer finds it offensive that Rostov doesn’t do anything purposeful with his life, but instead spends his days “Dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole.” This list of un-workmanlike diversions displeases the Party, which sentences him to live out his life in the opulent hotel that was his temporary home. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the narrator’s wise and witty voice when he shares his observations about the imprisoned aristocrat’s experience. We watch as Count Rostov sorts his belongings in an effort to choose the few things that will fit in his new and much smaller lodgings in the hotel: “We come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity – all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance.” The Count then slips his deceased sister’s scissors into his pocket – a useful object that has both aesthetic and symbolic value for him. The book doesn’t ignore Russian history exactly; the narrator provides footnotes explaining events and people of historical significance from time to time, and the people who come and go from the hotel bring stories with them from the outside, where communism marches on. But overall, the book offers an insight into what it might feel like to be a bug in amber or a fixture in a museum while time, political movements, and social norms move forward. In an age where Fear of Missing Out is a motivator for many, this book clearly shows that being set aside and forgotten can bring its own blessings. Count Rostov creates an alternate and arguably safer world within the walls of the Hotel Metropole, a world that will draw you in and fill you with delight.