A Gentleman in Moscow

Too many books were negatively affected by my high expectations from reading too many rave reviews, so I made sure I didn’t know much about this book to start with, only that this is a perfect ‘lockdown’ book. And one day, it just appeared with a Kindle Daily Deal. Ahh bliss.

So first of all, I read through the table of contents –

It’s always worth paying attention to the table of contents, especially when it’s intentionally crafted, you can get a lot from it. A Gentleman in Moscow is a good example. The contents set the tone and its intriguing in itself. 1) All the chapter titles are words starting with ‘A’. 2) The story spans decades! 3) The chapters advance by a doubling principal. This, I have to admit I didn’t realise until I read a Q&A with the author:

“One day after [the Count’s house] arrest, two days after, five days, ten days, three weeks, six weeks, three months, six months, one year, two years, four years, eight years, and sixteen years after arrest. At this midpoint, a halving principal is initiated with the narrative leaping to eight years until the [end of the story – I removed the spoiler here], four years until, two years, one year, six months, three months, six weeks, three weeks, ten days, five days, two days, one day and finally, the turn of the revolving door.”

Here’s what’s on the ‘About the Book’ page.

A nice blurb to whet your appetite without the danger of any spoilers:

“On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.

But instead of being taken to his usual suite, he is led to an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely.

While Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval, the Count, stripped of the trappings that defined his life, is forced to question what makes us who we are. And with the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose.”

And at this point I think back to the 32-year time span in the table of contents and feel the 480 pages in my hand (figuratively speaking – it was a Kindle book). Could a man’s entire life be fit into a hotel? What could happen in this confined space that filled such a long novel? From 1922 to 1954, that was indeed a time of great changes in Russia.

Here’s what I love about it.

I love the warmth and the subtlety. There are friendships and enmities. There is grief and joy. It’s all communicated with just the right force. The world is as confined as one single building, but stories happen in every floor and every room. History has its dark and cruel moments, but when light shines unexpectedly, isn’t it more beautiful? We lose the ones we love one way or another, but the people we have now, aren’t they trustworthy and kindred spirits just like family? And how I love the characters – all of them!

I love how the author weaves glimpses of the changes in the society over the years into the everyday life in one hotel. They are small snippets but they show deep and far. I love how the author tells the everyday life of one specific person for a few hundred pages and it doesn’t sound boring. I specifically love the last few chapters when the pace of the action suddenly picks up and the contrast is almost breathtaking.

There is a lot I want to say about the story itself but I believe I enjoyed it so much because I didn’t know much about it to start with. I don’t want to ruin it for you, so I’ll leave them to the other side of these book covers. If you want to know more about the story itself, head on, I enjoyed writing the summery below and I tried not to reveal too much. If you’re intrigued enough to start reading the book, stop here and I hope you love the book as much as I did!

More about the storyline:

In Book One Count Rostov, age 32, cheerfully explored the Metropol Hotel and improved his living quarters as much as he could. The Count is under house arrest. But there really are worse places to be held under house arrest than the dazzling Metropol Hotel. The Count guided us through restaurant after restaurant, room after room. His living space was doubled and he even found solace on top of the roof. Most importantly, he was respected and welcomed here by all the staff like an old friend. He made friends with one particular young lady who would change his life forever in the most unexpected way. It wasn’t so bad after all. His small room was like a berth in a train or on a ship onto an adventure. The florist would open again! Optimism was in the air.

Then Book Two came. Thousands of bottles of red and white wines were stripped of their labels for it was against the spirit of the Revolution. Enmity was on the rise. That single episode cast a dark shadow towards the future. Things could change. And it could change overnight. The Hotel was the Noah’s Ark for the Count. But would it stand the hurricane of history? One night the Count found himself “poised on the spot where the roof met the ether”. What would become of the Count without the Hotel? What saved him from that moment?

In Book Three, the existing cast of characters were developed further as time marched on year by year. A few new characters were introduced seemingly randomly but their importance only realised retrospectively. The political position and personality of them left you wondering if this is fortune or foreboding for the Count. As the Count encountered friends, foes and folks of uncertain intention with the same manner and intelligence of a true gentleman, I couldn’t help admire him – a man who is under house arrest for no reason other than the turbulence of the history, but is genuine when he says “life has been generous to me in its variety” and in reply, one could say of him “who would have imagined, when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all Russia.” And life is indeed going to repay him generously in Books Four and Five.

The Count might have lost a lot of his freedom, but he also gained something valuable. Book Four starts with an episode that demonstrates the close relationship between the Count and his daughter. And only retrospectively I can tell this random and insignificant episode set the story off to a new and final stage, and all the invisible threads are being subtly woven together throughout book four…

Book Five suddenly turned a bit mysterious (and slow at some points). But soon the last few chapters unexpectedly turned into a fast-paced thriller. And what a delightful surprise! I completely didn’t expect the pistols, the scissors, the body double, the intelligence and the courage of the daughter and the father, now in his sixties, and among all the twists and turns, the astonishing and heartwarming friendships.

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