Friday, February 17, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow was one of my Book of the Month selections back in September 2016, but I hadn't gotten around to reading it yet.  This made it the perfect choice for my 2017 reading challenge category, "A book that takes place in a hotel."  This is because almost the entirety of the book takes place in the Hotel Metropol in Russia.  The main character, Count Alexander Rostov, lives in the hotel when he is arrested by Stalin's administration because of his background.  But instead of being executed, he's sentenced to house arrest in the hotel because of a poem he wrote years ago.  His rooms are downgraded--from a luxurious suite to a tiny attic garret--but he got off easy, and the story follows his life in the hotel as he bonds with staff and visitors, develops a long-lasting rivalry, and makes his life into something of meaning despite the narrow confines of its physical space.

This was an absolutely lovely book.  When Rostov begins to waste away in the hotel, settling into listlessness in the time after his initial sentencing, a nine-year-old girl with a penchant for yellow named Nina pulls him out of his funk and shows him all that the hotel really has to offer.  And as the years go on he transitions from a guest--even under house arrest, he has quite a bit of money stashed away that he can draw on--to a staff member, helping the Boyarsky dining room work as he has always imagined it should.  And he ultimately ends up caring for a young girl left in his hands when her mother goes off to Siberia in search of her husband.  All the while, he tracks the changes in the world through the guests who come and go and the things that happen around him, only venturing outside the hotel's confines once in the several decades he spends there.

The characters here were wonderful.  I could perfectly picture the chef Emile, ruling the kitchens with his giant chopping knife, and Nina in her yellow dress and her passkey on a ribbon around her neck, and little Sofia with her big eyes and solemn face, and Marina the seamstress with her wandering eye and talented hands, and even the characters who come and go, like Mishka and Osip.  And then, of course, there's the Bishop, coming up from being a lowly waiter to the manager of the hotel and wreaking havoc on the hotel and its inhabitants in the process.  The antics that Rostov and his compatriots get up to, from exploring dusty basements for treasure to making illicit French fish stews, are a sort of grown-up, Soviet-era version of that Disney Channel show The Suite Life of Zach and Cody.  But because this is the Soviet era, there's also an underlying sense of danger.  The hostesses are reporting on guests to the Secret Police.  Characters receive the Minus Six, an exile from the six largest cities in Russia.  And there's always the sense that, if Rostov does something wrong, his house arrest might end and he might end up against a wall with a firing squad pointed at him--a fate he just avoided to begin with.

One thing I was disappointed with was the ending.  I do suppose that it fits, in a way, but I was definitely hoping for something else.  I love that Rostov did what he thought was best for everyone else, and then took care of himself, but I was hoping he would take a slightly different path.  And Anna, too.  And that maybe everything could have worked out for Sofia...

Anyway, despite the ending, this was a lovely book, and I tore through it.  It's not packed with action and it's not heavy on plot; it's definitely driven by character and place more than anything else.  If you're looking for a lot of drama and a lot of action, this isn't the book for you.  But for something that has just a touch of grit and a touch of whimsy, all at the same time, I think this is a great choice.

4.5 stars out of 5.

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