Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

With literary sleight of hand, Amor Towles takes an epic tale of Russia and finesses it into a charming romp

<i>A Gentleman in Moscow</i>

The sleight of hand of a luxury hotel is to satisfy and surpass guests' needs invisibly – to make so much luxury seem effortless. That same sleight of hand is applied in Amor Towles' second novel, which is set almost entirely in the real-life Metropol, an Old World hotel that broke ground in 1899 and played host to decades of turmoil and new-nation building within its art nouveau walls. Towles takes this epic material and finesses it into a charming romp that never minimizes the horrors of Russia's turbulent history.

At book's beginning, Count Alexander Ros­tov is sentenced to lifelong house arrest in the Metropol. Relabeled a "Former Person" in the fledgling Soviet state, the count adapts to his confinement with a surprising malleability, finding the bright side to his reduced quarters and new purpose as headwaiter in the hotel's restaurant, the Boyarsky, where apparatchiks and sultry screen stars dine and are destined to become players in the domino-tumble plot.

Towles unfurls his narrative in 32 years of stops-and-starts – lavishing attention on certain defining days, then skimming past whole years and announcing devastating fates in mere asides. This long game demands a close reading that is rewarded in the plot's nesting-egg pleasures – the aha! moments when a bit player resurfaces to take center stage. (Towles occasionally delivers the reader a gentle tap, as in a footnote suggesting that a glanced-at character is "someone you should commit to memory, for years later he will have great bearing on the outcome of this tale.") To a one, the many characters are vividly rendered, and none more so than our constant companion, the Count, an irresistible figure of both playfulness and probity.

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles
Viking, 462 pp., $27

Amor Towles will speak about A Gentleman in Moscow in the session “The Tight Quarters of Time and Space,” with Maria Semple (Today Will Be Different) and moderator Amanda Eyre Ward, on Sun., Nov. 6, 3:30pm, in the Omni Ballroom, 700 San Jacinto.

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