Simply Spectacular

I think I just read my favorite book of the year. A Gentleman in Moscow deserves all the praise, acclaim and awards it has received and more. It’s wonderful, playful, charming, delightful…an absolute savory treat of a novel.

Written in 2016 by Amor Towles, virtually all of it takes place in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The entire first part is a series of scenes and encounters that paint a picture of the gentleman – Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. There’s no plot at first; the novel meanders, moving forward in time until eventually a plot of sorts reveals itself.

The Count is perfectly crafted and we get to know him through his stories and interactions, his musings and well-made points, lessons and insights. He is a raconteur with excellent taste. Patient, kind, gallant, educated, cheerful, loyal and reasonable. The novel is absolutely cinematic, but I can’t decide who could play the part of the Count. Maybe Jamie Dornan? (Don’t laugh if you only know him from 50 Shades of Gray, I’m currently watching the series The Fall, starring him and Gillian Anderson, and wow, he is good.)

The Count was born in 1889 wealthy, titled and privileged. A poem he wrote in 1913 got him into hot water after the revolution when he came back to Russia from Paris. The poem, Where is it now?, is epic and widely loved but the new powers that be fear it is a “call to action.” (“All poetry is a call to action” the Count says at his trial.)

The trial is where it all begins. In 1922 at age 33 he faces the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. They wonder why he’s come back to Russia after his time abroad. They fear his influence and expect trouble. His life is spared but he is sentenced to live out his days in the Metropol Hotel where he resides. If he steps foot outside the hotel he’ll be shot.

After his sentence the Count is forced to move from his spacious suite up to a small room on the 5th floor. But he makes the best of it as he does with all situations. There isn’t much that rattles him and he’s not one for self-pity.

Soon after the trial he meets Nina, age 9. She is the daughter of a widower staying at the hotel and she boldly approaches him one day at lunch. Alexander doesn’t have much experience with children, but that’s a good thing in Nina’s case because she’s precocious and direct. He’s taken in by her inquisitive nature, her talent for observation, and intelligence. They become fast friends and the scenes between them are priceless. Nina is but one of the Count’s female friends – more on them later.

The Count is a creature of habit and spends his days ‘dining, discussing, reading, reflecting.” He’s a gentleman to the core. Seemingly all he wants or needs are the simple things in life, beginning with breakfast (bitter coffee, a piece of fruit and a biscuit, all savored and enjoyed with nothing wasted – he gives the biscuit crumbs to the pigeon outside his window and the extra cream for his coffee to the hotel’s one-eyed cat.) Yes, the Count is also a friend to all animals. He talks to them and they answer: “meow” says the cat and “arf” say the two Borzoi dogs he meets.

After his breakfast the Count likes to read the papers and soon after it’s time for lunch at the Piazza, his name for the hotel’s casual but glamourous restaurant. After lunch he might engage in conversation or head back to his room to read. Dinner is usually at the Boyarsky, the hotel’s elegant upscale restaurant, then a brandy at the bar before bed.

If the novel never went anywhere, if it was just short chapter after chapter of little scenes and conversations I wouldn’t have been disappointed. It’s just under 500 pages long and with virtually every turn of the page there’s a new tale, memory or revelation. Here’s one scene with the Count at his best – observant, thoughtful, shrewd and helpful.

It takes place in the dining room; it is winter solstice and the Count is eavesdropping on a young couple at the next table. He can tell that the nervous young man is out of his league with his companion, and the humorless and inept waiter isn’t helping. (The Count calls him The Bishop – he’s tall, thin, superior, with a narrow chess-piece like head.) The conversation between the couple is about to bomb when the woman gives the man an opening. She comments on the music, wondering what the melody is, and the young man knows it. It’s from the Nutcracker he says, and goes on to tell her that he went with his grandmother every year. Suddenly the woman is interested but before they can continue the Bishop interrupts, ‘are you ready to order?’

Of course they’re not, the Count thinks! Any fool could see now was not the time to break in. But the young man picks up the menu, decides on a Latvian stew, and to the Count’s delight the woman orders the same. A good sign! But then the waiter suggests a terrible wine pairing, both expensive and not complementary to the dish. The Count laments to himself that it was the perfect opportunity for the Bishop to fulfill his purpose as a waiter – he could put the young man at ease, suggest an appropriate wine and further their romance.

The Count steps in – he leans over to them and suggests a better pairing with their stew, and then proceeded to order the same meal for himself. Later they toast each other and he thinks “young love… there’s nothing young about it.”

Speaking of romance, part two begins with an unexpected encounter. Anna is a movie star but unknown to the Count. She arrives at the hotel with her two dogs – Borzois, a Russian wolfhound breed, big, tall and strong. When they spot the hotel cat Anna can’t control them, but the Count brings them to heel with a couple of whistles. She bristles at first but later changes her tune. Few people (like the Bishop) can resist the Count’s charms.

Towles’ writing is smart and funny, precise and self-assured. I imagine him to be a lot like the Count: an excellent dinner companion, quick with a descriptive anecdote, a great listener, prone to digress. There are a lot of tangents and footnotes in the story but nothing you have to slog through. I don’t think there’s a single sentence I’d remove or replace in this gem.

I could go on and on recounting stories and scenes but I want you to read them for yourself. Instead, I’ll tell you about some of the other aspects of A Gentleman in Moscow – the hotel, the food and wine, and the women.

The hotel is described so that the reader can picture it perfectly, including the grand lobby, the restaurants and bar, the views of Moscow from the windows, the enormous flower arrangements, and the fountain in the middle of one of the restaurants. It’s old school elegance, but of course, it wasn’t old school at the time. It definitely harkens to a different era, one filled with gentlemen and ladies, manners and rituals. If you have to be sentenced to spend the rest of your life in a hotel you couldn’t do better than the Metropol.

The food and drink! The Count is a gourmand, his palate refined. The chef at the Metropol is a magician. Even with scarcity his dishes are inspired and precisely constructed. Paired with wines to enhance and complement the flavors, even the simplest meal is magnificent. The Count likes to close his eyes before his first bite, in order to fully appreciate the flavors and sensations.

I’m susceptible to food in books. When I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which is set in Sweden, and where the characters seem to subsist mainly on coffee and salami sandwiches, off I went to the grocery store to buy some hard salami and rye bread. With this book, even though I’m not a fan of pork, I now have a strong craving for some Latvian Stew with it’s caramelized onions, braised meat and stewed apricots. Sweet and smoky, it sounds good to me.

The women in the Count’s life are honored and cherished. His sweet, late sister Helena was his constant companion growing up, and a dark tale involving her is the reason he left Russia for Paris. Sofia is Nina’s daughter who enters the Count’s life as a very young girl and ends up changing him for the better – giving a new dimension to his manhood. Anna, his on-and-off lover, is his intellectual equal and a fine partner. And then there’s Marina, the hotel seamstress, a strong woman who the Count can, well, count on for more than just a needle and thread.

This must be the longest review I’ve ever written. I’ll close by saying that from the first page to the last A Gentleman in Moscow has no flaws. Towles absolutely nailed the ending and it’s the kind of book you finish and immediately want to turn back to page one to begin again.

The Count is a man for the ages, living an extraordinary life rooted in the sublimely ordinary. Yes, he had a great start – a childhood filled with fresh air, activity, an education in the liberal arts, manners, and the ways of a gentleman. He was supplied with wealth, guidance and unconditional support.

Even if we’re not born into an aristocratic family we can emulate the Count by slowing down, savoring our meals, enjoying the pleasures of friendship and conversation, and the solitary delights of reading a good book. Being open to new experiences and self-aware enough to know when we’ve fallen into a rut. I urge you to embrace the gentleman within you and see how sweet life can be.

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