A Gentleman in Moscow is one of the year’s most relentlessly charming books. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.
Amor Towles’s new novel concerns Count Alexander Rostov, a suave and elegant Russian aristocrat who, in 1922, is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest in a luxury hotel. The count — like a mustachioed Little Princess — is moved out of his glamorous suite and into a dilapidated old attic room normally used for storing old furniture. There, he proceeds to make the best of his new life. For the next 32 years.
At first, the count limits himself to enjoying the hotel’s amenities: the delectable food of its multiple restaurants, the pampering on offer at the barbershop. He people-watches; he exercises; he tries and fails to make his way through Montaigne’s Essays.
Over time, as these indulgences lose their charm, the count slowly begins to add responsibilities to his life. He becomes the headwaiter at the hotel’s premier restaurant, putting all his aristocratic knowledge of fine wine, fine food, and etiquette to good use. He instructs an officer of the party in Western culture and cinema. He even pulls a Jean Valjean and adopts a daughter.
Through it all, the count is unfailingly suave, urbane, and charming to a fault. He is charming as he corrects a waiter about what wine to have with dinner; charming as he shows a spoiled, wealthy actress how to properly care for her dogs; charming as he embarks on a heist to find saffron for a bouillabaisse.
Charm is, in fact, the count’s central character trait, one that infuriates the tribunal we see him face, via court transcript, at the beginning of the book:
Vyshinsky: Count Rostov, you do not seem to appreciate the gravity of your position. Nor do you show the respect that is due the men convened before you.
Rostov: The Tsarina had the same complaints about me in her day.
Ignatov: Prosecutor Vyshinsky. If I may …
Vyshinksy: Secretary Ignatov.
Ignatov: I have no doubt, Count Rostov, that many in the gallery are surprised to find you so charming; but I, for one, am not surprised in the least. History has shown charm to be the final ambition of the leisure class.
The count’s charm is so relentless, bordering on aggressive, that you occasionally find yourself on Ignatov’s side. Slow down a little, you want to say. You don’t have to turn every meal into a meditation on Tolstoy and the unique character of the Russian people! It’s okay to just sit.
Further weighing down the count’s charm is A Gentleman in Moscow’s occasionally clunky voice. Towles’s previous book, Rules of Civility — a hit in 2011 — had a narrative voice as smooth and stylish as the martinis its characters sipped, but A Gentleman in Moscow demonstrates a disappointing fondness for the thesaurus. A clock is a "chronometer." A face is a "visage." You don’t get anything out of those words; they’re just there to take up extra space on the page and clutter up the flow of the sentences.
Still, the bulk of Gentleman in Moscow is so much fun that its occasional synonym abuse is hardly noticeable. Towles’s evocation of Russia throughout the first half of the 20th century is precise and focused. Through the count’s eyes, from the lobby of the hotel, we see trends in clothing, food, music, and ideology come and go. We watch as jazz is deemed first dangerously decedent and then irresistible; we watch the count fall madly in love with Humphrey Bogart.
And in the end, the count’s charm — overpowering as it is — comes to seem brave and even heroic. The count loses one way of life and has to invent another, but he refuses to lose his sense of courtesy and grace.
Sara Crewe, the heroine of A Little Princess and the count’s forerunner when it comes to bearing diminished circumstances with grace, would be proud.