By Janet Kobobel Grant
As has been my tradition over the last several years, I wanted to share with you my reading highlights from 2018. Generally, I have a number of titles that were a delight to consume, but this year one book stood out as so amazing that it cast a shadow over all others.
I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about my favorite book from 2018: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I encountered the novel because it was selected by the members of a book club I belong to. Since I wasn’t at the meeting in which the year’s worth of books were nominated, discussed, and voted on, I came to the book with fresh eyes, having no idea what the novel was about.
In the first few pages, the author’s audacious premise gobsmacked me. Starting in 1922, the story begins when Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to live in exile from his luxurious life for having a subversive poem published. But the Count isn’t sent to Siberia; he’s banished to live across the street from the Kremlin in the Metropol, a grand hotel. He must never set foot outside the hotel for the rest of his life.
Envision choosing to write a story that has one setting: a hotel. I couldn’t imagine that Towles could carry off such a confining plot for an entire novel. But Towles’s imagination soared within those confines. The characters who came and went from the hotel kept the story lively and fresh.
But even more fascinating was seeing how the count responded to having his life, in a sense, miniaturized. His hotel room wasn’t an elegant suite but instead was the attic with a tiny window from which the count could peer outside–if he craned his neck just so.
What the Critics Had to Say
Below you can read a few quotes from professional reviews A Gentleman in Moscow received.
“Irresistible . . . In his second elegant period piece, Towles continues to explore the question of how a person can lead an authentic life in a time when mere survival is a feat in itself . . . Towles’s tale, as lavishly filigreed as a Fabergé egg, gleams with nostalgia for the golden age of Tolstoy and Turgenev.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“Who will save Rostov from the intrusions of state if not the seamstresses, chefs, bartenders and doormen? In the end, Towles’s greatest narrative effect is not the moments of wonder and synchronicity but the generous transformation of these peripheral workers, over the course of decades, into confidants, equals and, finally, friends. With them around, a life sentence in these gilded halls might make Rostov the luckiest man in Russia.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“In all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight . . .This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can’t begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind. A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles’ stylish debut, Rules of Civility.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
What One Reader Had to Say
“I’ve read many books and loved many books, but A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles may have just become my favorite.
“A Gentleman in Moscow is the 30-year saga of the Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is placed under house arrest inside the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922 when the Bolsheviks spare him from death or Siberia because of his 1913 revolutionary poem written in university. The relationships he forms with staff and guests, his handling of twists of fate, his moral rectitude and his perseverance to go on in the face of his lifelong imprisonment for being a Former Person make for a compelling tale, told beautifully by Towles. It is not overwritten, and provides just enough historical context without being burdensome. And Towles doesn’t overdo the use of the Russian diminutive, which I’ve found in Russian classics to be crazy making and require a scorecard. Towles gives the reader just enough background of his characters. We know them but still wonder; he’s left room for the reader….
“I literally sat and stared into space for an hour after I finished A Gentleman In Moscow, contemplating it and wishing it hadn’t ended.
“I may just have to re-read it.”
And Here’s Another Reader’s Response
“Book hangover. Book hangover for days. I had such an emotionally fulfilled feeling at the end of this novel that when I finished the last page, I closed the book, sat back, sighed deeply, and thought, ‘well, what now? where do I go from here? how do I move on?’…book hangover.
“It seems convoluted to start a review with the ending of a book, but this novel is actually a rather long tale, spanning 30+ years, so before I get into the journey, allow me this one break with decorum. The ending. Oh, this ending. Whenever anyone asks me which book ending I love the most, I will usually answer Water for Elephants, because it has one of the most satisfying endings I have ever read. And until now no other novel has come close to changing my answer. But A Gentleman in Moscow, if not completely upsetting Sara Gruen’s work, at least pulls level with it, because it is such a satisfying end to this novel, and I’ll say no more than that for fear of ruining the experience for anyone else.
The Reviewer Makes a Good Point
“Who hasn’t had the thought, at some point, that it would be nice to live in a hotel? Perhaps we don’t imagine that it will be under house arrest and 1922 in Moscow, but it’s a luxurious idea to entertain. It feels like such a universal fantasy that, despite the fact that we are not (probably) an aristocrat, a connoisseur of multiple tastes, exceedingly cultured, and currently exiled within our own country, we somehow connect with Count Rostov immediately. Here is a man from a by-gone era and yet he wins us over completely with his wit and charm from the very first page.
“This is all due completely to the beautiful writing of the author, of course….Towles writes with such sophistication and beauty in every carefully chosen word that it manages to feel effortless. It’s captivating….
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the humor and philosophical wisdom running throughout this novel. At times it’s witty and funny in that perfectly refined way, and in the next moment it’s incredibly astute and insightful. I could quote this book for days….
“A Gentleman in Moscow is wonderful from beginning to end. It’s the type of book that I know I will reread because I’m not ready to let it go….”
If These Responses Seem Like Gushing…
Okay, these reviews sound pretty over-the-top, right? I mean, a book hangover!?
All I can say is that I greeted the reviews with a hearty “amen.” Of the 12 members in our book club, everyone of them raved about the book.
At the end of our meetings, we rank books with two numbers: one for enjoyment; one for writing. The book pretty much received 10/10 from everyone, which only has happened once before, for The Boys in the Boat.
So, drop everything and READ THIS BOOK! It’s witty, humorous, charming, and profound. And did I mention it’s my only nomination for favorite book of 2018? Okay, I’ll stop being obnoxious now.
What book that you read in 2018 would you like to gush over? I’m ready to make a list of books I must read in 2019.
Join the conversation: What’s your favorite book you read in 2018? Click to tweet.