A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is well written and thoughtful book well worth your time. The setting is Moscow just after the Russian Revolution in 1922. The book tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat sentenced to a life sentence of house arrest in the attic of Moscow’s most luxurious hotel, the Metropol. Under normal circumstances, the Bolshevik party would have executed him, but Rostov published a poem sympathetic to the working class under his name after the revolt of 1905.
Knowing a bit of Russian history is useful, but not necessary to enjoy Towles’ novel. The history behaves as a backdrop to the story. Under house arrest, Rostov is lucky enough to gain a number of friends, allies, and of course enemies. He leads a charmed life, proving that money and status still mean something even under revolutionary Russia. With the exception of food shortages and one petty bureaucrat, the Metropol is virtually untouched by history.
Parts of this book are sweet, like when Rostov befriends Nina, the 9-year-old daughter of a bureaucrat, or when Rostov instructs Osip—a Russian diplomat—on matters of etiquette and culture. Other parts are humorous, and other parts are sad.
A Gentleman in Moscow is ultimately about the personal evolutions of Rostov’s character. Rostov uses his acute understanding of human psychology and his impeccable observance of etiquette to guide him through long imprisonment. Nor does he use his intellectual powers to hurt anyone unless necessary. Rostov demonstrates a generous spirit and helps those in need even if it makes things more difficult for him.
In addition, some might find Rostov’s personal philosophy personally inspiring. Rostov sets out to master his unfavorable circumstances as best he can, and he makes it work. He does this by adapting to every misfortune, by appealing to humanity’s kinder nature, and by finding beauty in the smallest things. Rostov remains kind despite setbacks, and bears misfortune patiently. In short, Rostov possesses an exemplary moral character that may prove instructive to us readers in our own difficult times.