Book Review | “A Gentleman in Moscow”

book reviewReview by LEAH COOPER

We seem to be living in a world today where civility is a lost art. But in each of Amor Towles’ New York Times bestselling novels, we are transported to a world where civility rules – at least for some of the characters. In some ways, these novels are in contrast. “Rules of Civility” takes place over a single year, 1938, in Manhattan, New York, while

A Gentleman In Moscow” spans 32 years, from 1922 to 1954, in Russia. Katey Kontent is a young working class woman whose story roams throughout the city, while Count Alexander Rostov is an aristocratic man confined to the Hotel Metropol, having lost everything when a Bolshevik tribunal issues his sentence.

Count Rostov is very concerned with generational relationships; Katey is unfettered by the relationships of children or parents. Even the book lengths are a contrast, with “A Gentleman In Moscow” substantially longer than “Rules of Civility.”

What both novels share is an appreciation for the nuances of words and a lively wit by the lead characters. With intentional understatement, we read in “A Gentleman in Moscow,” “Let us concede that the early thirties in Russia were unkind.” When an aristocratic acquaintance of Katey Kontent remarks on how well read she is for one of the working middle class, she replies that they are the only ones she knows who are.

These are both very much character-driven novels, though that does not mean they lack action or suspense. It is really quite amazing the way Amor Towles was able to produce such a captivating novel as “A Gentleman In Moscow,” with its setting almost exclusively within the bounds of a single building and the people that enter that building. Yet while
the reader expects that world to close in upon the protagonist, it actually grows larger and fuller as the years go by.

I was so captivated by Towles second novel, that I next read his first, Rules of Civility. Judging by the number of times both books have been checked out this year from Jefferson Carnegie Library, I suspect others have been doing the same. I was expecting “Rules of Civility” to be about a common woman striving to worm her way into elite society, full of fluff but not much substance.

I was surprised to find Katey was not so much striving to enter elite society as finding herself there through luck and circumstance. Which is not to say that Katey wasn’t interested in advancing. After all, she did change her name from Katya to Katey so she didn’t sound like a Russian immigrant. Mark Athitakis, in his review in AARP, has an apt description: “Marionette strings snap into view in many a scene; what makes Katey a charming and worthy narrator is her dawning awareness of who’s pulling those strings, and her constant willingness to yank back.”

Come by Jefferson Carnegie Library to check out one or both of these books. You can access the library catalog on our website, to see the checkout status. If it is checked out, call the library at 903-665-8911 and ask to be put on the waiting list.

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