A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: On Appreciating, Yet Not Loving a Book

A Gentleman in MoscowFiction
Released September 6, 2016
448 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it…unless you have big chunks of quiet time.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Viking)

Headline

Though I appreciated A Gentleman in Moscow on an intellectual level, the formal writing style kept me from being able to connect with it emotionally.

Plot Summary

In 1920’s Moscow, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced by the Bolsheviks to “house arrest” in the illustrious Metropol Hotel, where he essentially holds court and observes his country’s evolution.

Why I Read It

I loved Towles’ previous novel, Rules of Civility, and some of my trusted blogger friends gave his latest 5 stars.

Major Themes

Communism, Russia, making the most out of the life you have

What I Liked

  • The Count is an utterly delightful character. Though he’s been a gentleman of leisure his entire life, he adjusts cleverly to living in a tiny attic room (albeit in a grand hotel) and losing all freedom outside of the hotel walls. It’s almost like he’s an adult Eloise in the way he becomes more and more a fixture of the hotel.
  • The Metropol Hotel becomes a microcosm of everything that’s going on in Russia…and the Count is able to get a sense of the sweeping political changes through small changes inside the hotel. For example, an elaborate ticket system appears in the hotel’s restaurant, where each order has to be recorded in numerous places with numerous people, illuminating the crushing bureaucracy of Communism.
  • The Count’s observations on life and history made me smile and chuckle throughout.

In Russia, whatever the endeavor, if the setting is glorious and the tenor grandiose, it will have its adherents. In fact, over the years, as the locations for duels became more picturesque and the pistols more finely manufactured, the best-bred men proved willing to defend their honor over lesser and lesser offenses. So while dueling may have begun as a response to high crimes—to treachery, treason, and adultery—by 1900 it had tiptoed down the stairs of reason, until they were being fought over the tilt of a hat, the duration of a glance, or the placement of a comma.

  • This story is a masterpiece of cleverly woven details. You’ll see a split second reference to something you read about in more detail 100 pages earlier. And, the ending is like a carefully orchestrated symphony…intricate and surprising, yet every detail making sense.
  • I loved the subversive tone that poked fun of the Bolsheviks and, later, Stalin’s communism.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Despite everything I just said, I wasn’t as enamored with A Gentleman in Moscow as I expected to be…and as others are (Gilmore Guide to Books, The Book Wheel). While I appreciate its beauty, it failed to connect with me on some emotional level. I had trouble concentrating and kept zoning in and out (admittedly, this could be because of the back-to-school chaos that was going on while I was reading it). I just couldn’t ever fully immerse myself in this story, which kept me from being able to love it.
  • This is the type of book that you should curl up with in peace and that doesn’t fit well into my life right now. Particularly not in the first few weeks of September with young children!
  • The writing is exquisite, but very formal. This makes sense as the Count is a formal character, but I prefer a more casual style. This, in a nutshell, is the overwhelming reason I had trouble with this book.
  • The story often veered off on tangents that pulled me out of the story and the Count does an inordinate amount of pontificating (about wine, prime numbers, American movies, etc), which is sometimes fascinating (see the above quote about duels), but often boring.
  • Finally, I felt like I was reading it forever…which is not usually a good sign.

A Defining Quote

Nina had not contented herself with the views from the upper decks. She had gone below. Behind. Around. About. In the time that Nina had been in the hotel, the walls had not grown inward, they had grown outward, expanding in scope and intricacy. In her first weeks, the building had grown to encompass the life of two city blocks. In her first months, it had grown to encompass half of Moscow. If she lived in the hotel long enough, it would encompass all of Russia.

Good for People Who Like…

Historical fiction, social commentary, delightful characters, Russia, Communism, gorgeous writing

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58 Comments

  1. I loved Rules of Civility, too, but remember those back-to-school weeks with young children very well. Don’t think I could have appreciated (or concentrated on) anything more complicated than whatever I was reading to them at bedtime! This was a great review.

    Posted 9.27.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Haha – yep, it’s chaos!! And, thank you 🙂

      Posted 9.27.16 Reply
  2. This one’s getting great buzz but I suspected it wasn’t for me. Your post just confirmed I was right.

    Posted 9.27.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Glad I could help 🙂

      Posted 9.27.16 Reply
  3. Great review, Sarah! I think you gave a really fair and accurate description of A Gentleman. My review is going up on Thursday and I share some of the same feelings as you about this book. The defining quote you used is also in my review! I feel like I should go back and change it, but I loved that passage….

    Posted 9.27.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Thank you and I’m secretly glad there is at least one other person on my side of the fence on this.

      And you should use the quote! I certainly don’t have any ownership over it!

      Posted 9.27.16 Reply
      • Lisa Frankenfeld wrote:

        I am reading it and am so bored I could scream. I keep waiting for something of import to happen. I thought there was something wrong with me because so many like this book.

        Posted 6.20.19 Reply
  4. Gabby wrote:

    This is such a thoughtful way to articulate an issue that I have sometimes with books (and movies), too…just because you can recognize that it’s well-crafted doesn’t always mean you actually LIKE it. I always struggle with how to rate these kinds of books.

    Posted 9.27.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Thank you! I was struggling while reading…I was having trouble really getting into the story, but every note I took about the book was positive. It was really odd.

      Posted 9.27.16 Reply
  5. Michelle wrote:

    This is how I feel about Mischling. Beautiful story (so far) with beautiful writing but it requires huge chunks of quiet and uninterrupted reading time. Time I just do not have right now. Thanks for the warning on this one! The publisher is bothering me to put out a review, even though my copy is from BEA and I in no way committed to any date or time for a review.

    Posted 9.27.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Ha- well thanks for the warning on Mischling…definitely not the kind of book I can handle right now! You’re now the 3rd blogger I follow who hasn’t been over the moon about it. Taking it off my TBR.

      Posted 9.27.16 Reply
      • I liked Mischling a lot and thought it was a much easier book to get through than A Gentleman in Moscow. Just saying!

        Posted 9.27.16 Reply
  6. Sounds like something I would like, but, yeah, I will save this one for when I have huge chunks of spare time… whenever that may be.

    Posted 9.27.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Hopefully you can find some time 🙂

      Posted 9.27.16 Reply
  7. Although I think you’re a bit mad for not loving this book (am I allowed to say that? I say it with love and respect!), I get where you’re coming from. This is definitely a book that requires long chunks of quiet time and it doesn’t sound like it was the right book for what you have going on right now. I am, however, glad that you at least appreciate the writing. Now, on to the next one!

    Posted 9.27.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I know, I know. I do understand why everyone else loves it…I just didn’t.

      Posted 9.30.16 Reply
  8. This definitely sounds like one that I love the idea of but when I go to actually read it then it just can’t hold my attention. Oh well, I will definitely have to check out other books by this author though!

    Posted 9.27.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      That’s a great description and very close to how I felt!

      Try Rules of Civility – from what I remember, that one didn’t require quite as much concentration!

      Posted 9.30.16 Reply
  9. Meaghan wrote:

    I agree that it is best spent with some quiet time, a samovar of tea and some delicious snacks. But I loved it. I think I liked it even better than Rules – which I really enjoyed. Rules gets its driving energy from angst. Moscow is purely character driven. The idea that a person could create a whole world while being imprisoned is an endlessly fascinating concept to me.

    Posted 9.28.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I agree that there was something absolutely charming about the world he created.

      Posted 9.30.16 Reply
    • Pam Hall wrote:

      I just read the book, so am late replying to your post, but you summed up my feelings exactly. I loved that the Count could create a peaceful, gentlemanly world of his own in such a world of chaos. He makes friends, inherits a daughter, and becomes a lowly waiter, but with definite style.

      Posted 4.19.17 Reply
  10. Carmen wrote:

    Sounds like my kind of book and topic.

    Posted 9.28.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Hope you love it!

      Posted 9.30.16 Reply
  11. Catherine wrote:

    Well said. I understand why this didn’t resonate for you the way it did for me (even though I am still insanely in love with this book). I had the quiet time and the detail and formal style quieted my mind so it was a win-win.

    I’m pretty sure this doesn’t invalidate our reading twinness. We’re just not identical twins!

    Posted 9.28.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Nope – this doesn’t invalidate anything! We have recent successes of Siracusa and Commonwealth to fall back on.

      Posted 9.30.16 Reply
  12. I’m listening to A Gentleman in Moscow, started a couple days ago. I’m enjoying it well enough, but I’m not overly eager to put in my earbuds and find more stuff to clean so I can listen … which is what happens when I’m really into a book.

    Posted 9.28.16 Reply
  13. Although you had a mediocre sort of experience, this sounds like exactly the sort of thing I would love. And I do have large chunks of quiet time so it would suit me perfectly. But I’m sad it didn’t quite work out for you 🙁

    Posted 9.30.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I think you should definitely give it a try…especially since so many other people are loving it.

      Posted 9.30.16 Reply
    • Darlene wrote:

      Please read it then, Heather..or have you already? This book is a gem and I loved it. Can’t wait for the miniseries.

      Posted 11.20.17 Reply
  14. Madeline wrote:

    I just finished. Fortunately I could devote large periods of time to it, which I think it needs. The first half (or so) is largely vignettes which come together in the second half. The ending is fabulous: satisfying while thought provoking. This book will stay with me for a long time.

    The writing is sublime. Some reviews have said it’s too “formal.” Heavens, it takes place 75+ years ago. The 3rd person narrator is creating a mood and setting the scene.

    Very close to the best book I’ve read this year.

    Posted 9.30.16 Reply
  15. Tom wrote:

    Oh boy…I could get in trouble here. I promised my Mother-in-law I would read A Gentleman…and….it is easily one of the worst novels I have ever read. Nice story, friendly, unassuming characters, reasonably well written, but….oh, so long. What is covered in 427 pages could have taken 62. Really, what is it about? If it is more than it seems (i.e., a Count confined to live in a hotel), then what is it? A statement on sociology? Ideology? Political retribution? Bad Russian army people? It’s like Peter Sellers in Being There meets The Count of Monte Cristo. No matter what it intends and what it really is, it fails miserably at both. And finally, after the last paragraph, my first thought was, “And….?” A waste of time.

    Posted 11.29.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Haha – well, it certainly isn’t for everyone. I didn’t feel quite as strongly about it as you did and can see why some people have been raving about it, but it just didn’t speak to me.

      Agree that it felt LOOOONG and like I was slogging through it. Which is not how I want to feel in my reading. Onto something more satisfying!

      Posted 12.1.16 Reply
  16. Lisa wrote:

    Thank you for sharing your honest opinion. I’m in the middle of the book right now and just can’t seem to focus on it. In fact, I’m searching reviews to confirm my feelings rather than reading! I still,bled upon yours and really appreciate knowing that I’m not the only reader feeling the same way since the vast majority of reviews are overly glowing. I’m with you–beautiful writing style but just not for me!

    Posted 12.10.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I feel your pain! It’s hard to be contrarian on a book so many other people are raving about. I always keep asking myself “what am I missing?”

      Posted 12.12.16 Reply
  17. jo thompson wrote:

    Sigh…I loved it….i smiled inside and felt a sense of happiness while reading it. I was not ready to say goodbye when i reached the end.

    Posted 2.4.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      You’re not alone! I just couldn’t get there.

      Posted 2.6.17 Reply
    • Darlenr wrote:

      I’m with you on this, Jo. Can’t wait for the miniseries!

      Posted 11.20.17 Reply
  18. Alanna wrote:

    I appreciate your review and I agree completely! I picked it as my book club pick. I’m listening to the audio version and my mind keeps wandering. I think I’ve listened to several chapters 3 times which is making it even longer! I do appreciate it and I understand why it is loved by so many. I’m thinking (fingers crossed) that putting my personal feelings aside, it will make for an excellent discussion at our next book club meeting.

    Posted 2.22.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Oh man – I think that would be a super hard book to follow on audio. I commend you! Will be interested to hear what your book club thinks! There will most likely be differing opinions, which always makes for good discussion!

      Posted 2.22.17 Reply
  19. Jodi Erickson wrote:

    Just finished the book for my book club. I really loved it. I felt like i got so involved with the life at the hotel and enjoyed each character,and there were many to enjoy. I loved the mystery of the hidden doors, the description of the antiques and forgotten left behind items in the hotel. I could picture every room as he wrote, every scene. I enjoyed the relationship he had with Sofia, their playful games, running up the stairs. And in the end when he raced to the Bishops office. I smiled. Yes! Sofia would have applauded him. This book does need to be read in a quiet room, a non-hectic time in your life. I was able to enjoy it as it is meant to be enjoyed. My one page that I ear marked, was when he said to Sophia ; “Looking back, it seems to me there are people who play an essential role at every turn. And I dont just mean the Napoleons who influence the course of history; I mean men and women who routinely appear at critical junctures in the progress of art, or commerce, or the evolution of ideas, as if life itself has summoned them once again to help fulfill its purpose. Well since that day I was born, Sofia, there was only one time when life needed me to be in a particular place at a particular time, and that was when your Mother brought you to the lobby of the Metropol. And I would not accept the Tsarship of all the Russians in exchange for being in this hotel at that hour.” I loved that!

    Posted 3.20.17 Reply
  20. James T. Lee wrote:

    Well, it’s just a fabulous read. I got an urgent tip from good friends who emailed me from an airliner that was at 36,000 feet over the Pacific — they were sitting in First Class on their way to Hawaii — and they said, “you must get this book and get it immediately”.

    I’m still trying to figure out the very last chapter. Any tips ?

    Posted 3.30.17 Reply
    • What a mixed bag of remarks about this book! I agree with most of them… torturous reading in the beginning, I kept questioning myself, “why am I reading this?” The answer is that it was our book clubs selection and God forbid i didn’t finish read it and not be a part of the discussion! The writing is very formal but coincides with the prose of that time period and Russian authors so I certainly appreciated that piece . Several questioned the last chapter…. I was a bit disappointed as I wanted to know more about where they landed … I do believe (as someone asked ) that the “Willowy woman” was Anna the actress and it was the Count going back to Russia! Will certainly read ” Rules of Civility” !!!!
      Would love to know other thoughts about the ending!!!

      Posted 11.1.17 Reply
  21. Ah! I’m sorry you didn’t love this one. I still think back on this one a lot and have fond feelings for it (because yes, we can have feelings for a book, right?).

    Posted 4.3.17 Reply
  22. Dina C wrote:

    I am late to this party, but just finished Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Being that The Rules of Civility was one of my favorite books EVER, I thought loving his 2nd one would be easy. That would be a negative Comrade. Beautiful words, great characters… But no plot. I struggled to get through this one. Like the times my mother would ramble on the phone and I would hold the earpiece far away from my head, that is what I wanted to with some of the ginormous descriptions and pontificating in this book. Almost tortuous. Plus I guessI didn’t know enough about Russian history to care about the political nuances. It FINALLY embraced me when Alexander kidnapped the Bishop and shot the portrait of Stalin between the eyes. The plot finally showed up in the last 30 pages as Sofia cut her hair, dressed as a boy and slid out out the door to show up at the American Embassy and Alexander met his willowy bedmate in a Russian tavern. Bummer. Maybe I’ll re-read Rules…..

    Posted 4.12.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Amen, sister! I loved Rules as well..and felt like this one was a slog. Though the ending was pretty amazing. But, I was so beaten down by the time I got there that it didn’t make up for all the rest.

      Posted 4.15.17 Reply
    • Joannah Merriman wrote:

      I have read rules of civility three times and listen to it once. It is exquisite and one of my top five favorite books of all time. I did not quite feel that way about gentleman in Moscow but I was stunned every day, reading this book, by his ability to write in a similar tone Some of the Russian classics. Formal but inviting. His structure, his knowledge of history, his ability to put this kaleidoscope together into a story that kept me reading, shows his true talent.

      Some of the Russian classics. Formal but inviting. His structure, his knowledge of history, his ability to put this kaleidoscope together into a story that kept me reading, shows his true talent. And I was very fortunate to be reading it on the porch in a mountain cabin with no distractions. I’m not sure I could’ve gotten through it at home with all of my spinning plates and multitasking.

      Posted 6.19.17 Reply
      • Joannah Merriman wrote:

        Trying to write the above comment through Siri which sometimes makes mistakes but all I have is my phone up at my cabin and no computer, no Internet service. This situation definitely allowed me to read A Gentleman in Moscow uninterrupted!

        Posted 6.19.17 Reply
      • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

        I tried with all those spinning plates and multi-tasking…it was tough. Wish I’d had some peace and quiet b/c I might have felt differently.

        Posted 6.20.17 Reply
  23. Pam Hall wrote:

    It’s interesting reading everyone’s views on the book. Some love it, some hate it, and others just say,”Meh.” It just became my favorite book until I come up with my next favorite book! It sort of reminds me “The Remains of the Day” which I remember reading and telling my husband that he would hate it because nothing happens in it. I just enjoyed the language and interplay among the characters. Same here. Not a lot actually happens until the end, but I loved the Count and his musings, which some find interminable.

    Posted 4.15.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      It really is! This is one where I’ve heard reactions that are all over the map.

      Posted 4.18.17 Reply
  24. L. Martin Bell wrote:

    I usually really just two kinds of books: thrillers and what I easily call “literature.” In the case of AGIM, I cannot readily recall reading literary fiction so beautifully composed and so generously imagined. The Count is pretty much a too-perfect character, a literary Superman (he can’t fly, but one thinks he can almost leap tall buildings in a single bound!). One wishes to have known his likes in real life. How greatly enriched one’s life would have been! Bravo to Amor Towles!

    Posted 5.23.17 Reply
  25. Ken Weiss wrote:

    The book goes along with beautiful writing but basically little plot or direction until near the end. Then the author springs an unwarranted surprise (who was the woman at the end?), and I think that was wholly unnecessary and undermined the easy open pace of the book.

    For readers who, like me, generally liked the ‘feeling’ of the book, you can get much the same from an old novel, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. There people are confined to a fancy TB asylum in the Alps, not a fancy hotel in Moscow, but the ambience is similar.

    Posted 10.14.17 Reply
  26. christine slapik wrote:

    I absolutely loved this book and sorry to see advice by the reviewer to skip unless one had long quiet times for reading. It flowed nicely – the characters were very well developed. A mixture of loving relationships, Russian history. DO NOT SKIP IT

    Posted 7.16.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      A matter of taste. The writing was too formal and flowery for me.

      Posted 7.19.18 Reply
  27. Paul wrote:

    I wanted to love this book, I really did, but I’m afraid I too landed in the slog camp.

    The more I turned the pages (slowly) the more I kept wondering when something was going to happen. That, unfortunately, came well after the 420th page but by then I was forcing every page down like an oversteamed brussel sprout (and the book is 462 pages).

    I think Amor Towles strings together words thoughtfully and beautifully and his extensive vocabulary is second to none, I just found that those words never ever said anything.

    There was nothing in this book that kept me wanting to turn the page except for my own willingness to finish what I started.

    I admired the writing. I struggled to enjoy the read.

    Posted 8.18.18 Reply
  28. John wrote:

    Nonsense. The prose is elegant and has both a deliberate and propulsive meter. It is the Count himself brought to life. Full of humor, small poignancies, and trenchant observation. Surprised that you can’t hear the music. Just as Toles describes Sofia’s emotional connection to the Chopin, as opposed to the mechanical renditions of so many mediocre pianists, reading a novel like this requires a level of empathy that you lack.

    Posted 2.29.20 Reply
  29. Tiffany wrote:

    I just finished the book and had some questions so I went looking for online reviews. I, like you, loved Rules of Civility so much. And I, like you, did not love this book. I loved the character and his life, but I had all the time in the world to read this during lockdown and found anything and everything to do around the house instead of read it. However, I forced myself to finish it and I’m glad I did and am now wondering if I should re-read it…

    Posted 6.20.20 Reply

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