An Inspirational Read During This Time of Isolation: A Gentleman in Moscow
If you think social distancing is bad, try being under house arrest for 30 years.
I can count on one hand the books that I love so much that I’ll read them again and again. A Gentleman in Moscow is one of those books. During this time of isolation and uncertainty, I found myself reaching for this title hoping that it would provide me with much needed hope and inspiration.
Written by Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow is a story about a Russian aristocrat in the 1920s named Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov who at the beginning of the novel is facing charges for having written a revolutionary poem back when he was at university. Because the Count has friends in high places, the Bolsheviks spare him from death and instead, his punishment is to be placed under house arrest at the luxurious Metropol Hotel, where he lives for the next 30 years.
You may be thinking that being forced to live in a luxury hotel doesn’t sound like much of a punishment and that a story that takes place entirely inside one location doesn’t sound very interesting. But that’s a testament to what a masterful storyteller Towles is. He not only makes his unlikely protagonist so endearing and lovable, but he also vividly brings to life the world within the Metropol, from the tiny barber shop in the basement to the opulent Boyarsky restaurant where the who’s who of Moscow gather, such that you never feel bored or claustrophobic.
The first of many ideas that this book made me reflect on was the notion of captivity and what captivity really means.
Right now, it may feel like we are under house arrest as we practice sheltering-in-place. But even when we’re not faced with such restrictions, how many of us truly explore the world around us? The Count thought he knew every part of the hotel until he befriends a young girl who gives him the key that opens his eyes to what’s around him — quite literally, she gives him a key that opens every single door in the hotel from the basement to the rooftop.
The Count teaches us that captivity is all about perspective. As he surveys his cramped quarters in the hotel’s attic, he asks himself why, as a boy, he used to long for trips by steamship and overnight train.
Because their berths had been so small!
What a marvel it had been to discover the table that folded away without a trace; and the drawers built into the base of the bed; and the wall-mounted lamps just large enough to illuminate a page. This efficiency of design was music to the young mind. It attested to a precision of purpose and the promise of adventure. For such would have been the quarters of Captain Nemo when he journeyed twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea. And wouldn’t any young boy with the slightest gumption gladly trade a hundred nights in a palace for one aboard the Nautilus?
Similarly, our world, as suffocating as it may feel right now, is only as limited as our curiosity and imagination. I recently came across a wonderful post on social media that said “You’re not stuck at home. You’re safe at home.” And while we are safe at home, we are free to read, explore, and dream.
Also woven into the beautifully written passages are poignant reminders of what it means to have dignity and what it means to be a gentleman. The Count may be of a higher class, but it’s abundantly clear that having manners, integrity, loyalty, and speaking intentionally have nothing to do with class and everything to do with character.
In a way, this book reminded me of the comedy-drama film Life is Beautiful. The author takes serious subject matter, in this case, the turbulent times after the Bolshevik revolution, and he infuses universal truths about life in a way that’s neither cheesy nor patronizing. During the chaos and uncertainty of this pandemic, what a lovely reminder of the power of kindness and humanity.
Above everything else, it’s just a great story. There are heroes, villains, memorable supporting characters, adventure, history, suspense and even a love story. When I finished reading the last page, I felt like I had finished a delicious, satisfying meal at the Boyarsky — content, happy and ready for a nightcap.
So if you need a mental vacation from the news and Netflix, check out A Gentleman in Moscow and be prepared for a breathtaking literary journey.