Monday, June 25, 2018

"A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles (Book Review)

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Full of delights with a surprisingly satisfying ending.

The playful prose is what hooks you.

Consider this:

"In his room, he unloaded the linens and then went down the hall to get a second mattress from one of the abandoned rooms.

This had seemed an excellent idea to the Count when it had struck him, but the mattress was decidedly against it. When he bent over to lift the mattress from the bedsprings, it crossed its arms, held its breadth, and refused to budge. When he managed to get it upright, it immediately flopped over his head, nearly knocking him off his feet. And when he'd finally dragged it down the hall and flumped it in his room, it spread out its limbs, claiming every spare inch of the floor" (pg. 251)
Or this:
"As the Count turned to go, an American who had commandeered the piano began performing a jaunty little number that celebrated a lack of bananas, a lack of bananas today. A moment later, all the journalists were singing along. On another night, the Count might have lingered to observe the festitivities, but he had his own celebration to attend to. So with his precious cargo in hand, he navigated through the crowd of elbows, being careful not to spill a drop" (pg. 217).
And especially this:
"Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov stirred at half past eight to the sound of rain on the eaves. With a half-opened eye, he pulled back his covers and climbed from the bed. He donned his robe and slipped on his slippers. he took up the tin from the bureau, spooned a spoonful of beans into the Apparatus, and began to crank the crank.

Even as he turned the little handle round and round, the room remained under the tenuous authority of sleep. As yet unchallenged, somnolence continued to cast its shadow over sights and sensations, over forms and formulations, over what has been said and what must be done, lending each the insubstantiality of its domain. But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists--the aroma of freshly ground coffee” (pg. 171).
But the fascinating cast of characters intertwining their lives of both joy and sorrow in surprising ways is what keeps you reading.

And before you know it, you are carried away in a tide of beautiful storytelling to the gratifying conclusion.

For the first two thirds of A Gentleman in Moscow I was worried that an American like Amor Towles couldn’t truly write a novel about Russia or Russians. I’ve read some of the great Russian authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (and delicious yet lesser lights such as Boris Akunin), and you just can’t fake being Russian.

But Towles doesn’t try to be Russian. He threads the needle of being an American who loves Russia and Russians. He captures the essence without pretense of embodying it. And so his characters seem authentic–so real, in fact, that I wept at several points, especially as the story overflowed to its apotheosis.

I won’t try to explain the book. It defies a boxed-in description. That’s one of the things I love about it. And I can’t defend all of the morality of the tale (though thankfully the very occasional immorality is more suggested than described). But I can recommend the book with both of my thumbs pointed upwards.

Coffee is not the only envy of the alchemists. They would be rightly jealous of how this author turns words into gold.

View all my Goodreads reviews.