Friday, March 6, 2020

Freeform Friday: Guest Review by Cristina Bray of "A Gentleman in Moscow" - Amor Towles


You know how sometimes you just have those friends who read a ton--it seems that they're always reading new stuff and just take on a ton of genres and a ton of books? Cristina is one of those people. She reads a ton, and she reads a large variety of books, which, in my opinion, makes for a great reader and also one whose opinion I trust. I hope you enjoy this guest review from her today as she takes on the mega bestseller (and mega-sized) A Gentleman in Moscow.

Summary: He can't leave his hotel. You won't want to.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility--a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel.

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel's doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count's endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: When I was given the opportunity to guest review, I could think of no better book to share than “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. I first read it in 2018, a couple of years after it was published, and I still just can’t seem to quit it. I found so many little nuggets of wisdom in this novel, most of which have stayed with me for years. It is one of those that I want to force everyone to read. Force, because it may not be for everyone. I understand it lacks speed and immediate gratification. For those nerds like myself who love a bit o’ charm, humor, and nostalgia, this one is unparalleled. 

The story arc itself is slow, deep, and intricate, subtlety building to an unexpected ultimate crescendo. The setting mostly takes place in a grand hotel, Metropol, in Moscow. The Metropol has seen times of great wealth and opulence, and after several years and several wars, it has also seen some scarcity. The main character, Count Rostov, an aristocrat and gentleman, is mercifully sentenced to house arrest in the hotel (his current residence) by the Kremlin for life. His crime was publishing a poem that was considered a call to action against the state. His witty retort? “All poetry is a call to action.”

Count Rostov, despite being born into aristocracy, comes off as unpretentious and in tune with reality. He has obviously been used to the finer things in life, yet he is quick to adjust, realizing at one point “but, of course, a thing, is just a thing” as most of his possessions are “acquired” by the state. He also develops a pragmatic view of his predicament, saying “if man does not master his circumstances, he is bound to be mastered by them."

Perhaps I love this book because Count Rostov (and the author) obviously has a thing for food. Living in a hotel that once boasted the finest restaurant and chef east of Vienna, he comes to the conclusion, “But in a period of abundance any half-wit with a spoon can please a palate. To truly test a chef’s ingenuity, one must instead look to a period of want. And what provides want better than war?” Perfectly showing his glass-half-full view of life, he looks at war and scarcity as a challenge for ingenuity. To Rostov’s delight, the chef, Emile, is no half-wit—he is more akin to a orchestra conductor or genius.

Having lived in the hotel for several years before his arrest, and being well acquainted with all of the staff, Count Rostov considered himself an expert in all things Metropol. As he searches for purpose, while going about his days as an exile, he meets his metaphorical hotel sherpa: a nine-year-old girl named Nina. She is the daughter of an official and wants to be a princess. Her parents are much too busy for her. She in turn teaches him about the hotel. More than that, this kid discovers everything there is to know about the hotel—its bowels and sinews, doors behind doors—making the count feel like a novice inside its walls. With her adventurous spirit and direction, it’s as if Rostov discovers the hotel holds an entire microcosm of Russia and its history inside the walls.

While on the inside for several decades, everything else keeps moving. People come and go from the hotel and Rostov’s life. Nina grows and enters an adolescent idealistic phase. Naturally, but sadly, she moves on from princesses. A haughty and petulant actress passes through several times (*wink wink*). His beloved friend, philosopher and poet Mishka, unexpectedly falls in love (and out of it) and keeps him up to date with his woes and tales. And alas, there is Sofia (sixish?), a 30-pound package of a kid that completely upends his life. All of Rostov’s relationships create an intricate web—soooo many connections—reminiscent of Russian literature. The characters possess such a depth that you cannot do them justice to simply sum them up.

Rostov, having nothing but time on his hands, ponders about life and fate often. And how a single fateful day can change the course of a life. I see great beauty in the chain of events you have to follow to pinpoint those fateful moments. Something that seems small and insignificant can come along and slowly upend every proceeding event. At one point the narrator says: “Alexander Rostov was neither scientist nor sage; but at the age of sixty-four he was wise enough to know that life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions. Our faculties wax and wane, our experiences accumulate, and our opinions evolve—if not glacially, then at least gradually. Such that the events of an average day are as likely to transform who we are as a pinch of pepper is to transform a stew.”

No matter the aftermath of one’s fate, to Rostov “our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity—a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.”

In a world where we seem to value immediate gratification—explosives and high-speed bus chases—I feel like this story may be lost on some. However, the beauty is in the writing, in the wit and sarcasm and humor behind Rostov’s conversations with pigeons and cats. I LOL’d when he called his court sentencing a tête-à-tête with the Bolsheviks. The novels humor was unexpected given that the count seems so sophisticated and serious. I hope you all become as enraptured with this novel as I did, it will really be worth your while.

My Rating: Five stars! Woot woot.

For the sensitive reader: I can’t think of anything, even though I’m the most sensitive person I know?! Perhaps I’ve been desensitized. This is the most I could dredge up.

-This book eludes to the existence of sex. The count meets up with a certain actress after hours throughout the book. It is consensual, sort of. She runs the show, and he doesn’t know what to think about it, most of the time. It does not go into specifics.
-There is a memory of a duel that the count was in, no one dies as the result of the duel, but his opponent becomes injured. The duel leads to a series of events where the other man does die a few months later, and the count blames himself for his death.
-Rostov also holds another man up at gunpoint, near the end of the book.

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