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Book Review - A Gentleman in Moscow

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As I mentioned before, my reading group convenes every month. For October we read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, a book that is definitely on the "literary" side. What does that mean? For me, it means that the use of language is a feature in its own right, including imaginative use of metaphors and a crafting of sentences that is often poetic. The book takes place almost exclusively in the Metropol hotel in Moscow and is told solely from the point of view of Count Alexander Rostov, who is confined to house arrest in the hotel at the beginning of the book.

I absolutely loved this book. The use of language alone is brilliant, and I found that there was just enough description to bring me into the moment but not too much and the sense of humour was right down my alley. Also, the book is essentially about the tension between the Count as a refined, intellectual, and sharp-witted person and the people who "distrust any form of hesitation or nuance, and who prize self-assurance above all." (p. 144). I definitely fall on the side of the Count in this debate, so it's no wonder I enjoyed it.

Some in my reading group called the Count frivolous, and I see their point. He does (more so at the beginning of the book) talk a lot about the vintage of wines and doing things "just so". It reminded me a lot of Downton Abbey and mostly Mr Carson, who is adamant about doing things "the old way". But the Count doesn't stick to the "old way" just because it's how things are done. It's not an adherence to tradition in a rigid way but rather being true to the way you were brought up and holding good manners and civility above all. As we say in Canada, there's never a good reason to be rude.

A few people in the reading group found the contrast between the Count's fairly comfortable life at a luxury hotel and the bloody revolution that was going out outside of the hotel jarring and unbelievable. I thought it was wonderfully accurate. Moreover, I think it was done on purpose. Putting these two side by side is one of the strongest assertions of this book: that while revolutions may affect the "population", usually the way of life led by the top 1% doesn't change much. The people in the top 1% may change—as in this example—but the gap between the social classes remains. It may be a depressing truth, but it is, from what I see around me, a truth.

Personally, I'm dying to know what kind of research Amor Towles did for this book. He clearly stayed at the hotel and/or took a tour there. I found the Count different to the Russian people I know, in terms of a way of looking at the world, but it's entirely plausible for me as he was educated in France and well-travelled. The Russian people I know are well-educated, but there's something about the way they approach things which is fundamentally different from the one I'm used to. I felt that the Count is more of a depiction of how an American perceives Russians. But it was a rather vague feeling that didn't detract from my reading experience.

Bottom line: definitely one of my favourite books this year.


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