Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow

People have been raving about this book.  I put myself on a waiting list for it at the library. In the past, the waits are about a week tops.  This took over a month.  They had the book on speed reading lists also but even those were scooped up. When I finally got my notice that the book was available, I zoomed to the library on the day after Thanksgiving and hunkered down to read what I figured would be a page turner.

I did not think the book was so extra.  The author, Amor Towles, can write and sometimes I marveled at how well he expressed something, but overall it just did not grab me.  Meanwhile I must have had three friends tell me that I should drop everything and read it. 

It's about a gentleman from the privileged class who, shortly after the 1917 revolution, is sentenced to house arrest in a Moscow hotel. He is told that he must never leave the hotel or he will be killed. So, the entire book--except for one scene when his adopted daughter gets hurt-and he, despite the risk, races with her to the hospital--takes place in the Metropol hotel in Moscow.  I'm sure there is some metaphor there, but to date I can't figure it out, other than a general sense that we are all confined by our circumstances. Whatever the metaphor, it does not justify the absurdity of a person who lives his entire adult life indoors from 1922 to the mid 1950s.

As I wrote, the author can turn a phrase.  At one point the Count (the main character) is having difficulty sleeping as problems surface.  Towles writes,

"Like in a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count's would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore."

At another point the Count is describing conveniences. He goes through a list of them and concludes:

"To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences and at one time I had them all.  But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most."

Even with the beautiful writing, I cannot urge a reader to go get this. There are worse ways to spend a weekend, but if you never read the book, I'm not sure you would be missing anything other than an interesting description of the Russian revolution.  But who with any sense of history doesn't know that the Russian revolution was a sham? 

There are some very engaging and endearing characters. There's a nine year old whom he befriends when he first is sentenced, and then many years later we meet that nine year old's daughter. There's a friend from college, and an actress who becomes the count's paramour.  We meet a woman who is the seamstress in the hotel, as well as the chef, bartender, and maitre d of the restaurant.  And then there are the Soviet officials who have consumed the Kool-Aid.

The book is a novel, but he sprinkles in real (as opposed to alternative) facts from the revolution  and uses footnotes to do so. Not sure I have ever seen footnotes used in a work of fiction. 

This is not the first time I did not like a book that has been bally-hooed. I do not get the enthusiasm for The Great Gatsby, or Catch-22 (though the actual catch-22 is pretty good) or On the Road, which I think I threw against the wall at one point I was so annoyed by the tale.  A Gentleman in Moscow is not in this category of hoo-hah books I did not like at all--it's just not all it is cracked up to be.

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