Being a New York Times bestseller, when I first stumbled across Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow I was not convinced it would be a great read. Of course, you’d think that being a best seller would guarantee that it was a good book but over time I’ve learnt that just because something sells well doesn’t mean it’s a quality book – or that I’ll enjoy reading it.
In my opinion, best-seller lists can often be divided into three types of books: books which sell well because they are easy to read and the authors are recognisable names, such as Tom Clancy or James Patterson; those over-hyped by the public which, whilst they could have been great reads if you’d found them without hearing about them constantly are always going to be a let-down because you’ve heard so much about them; and “literary fiction”.
Before we go any further, I guess I should explain that, for the most part, I avoid literary fiction because the whole idea seems a little pretentious. Literary fiction is often thought to have more merit than other genres, but in reality most books that fit into the literary fiction genre would fit just as well in other genres and by praising books as being more “literary” than others, it’s difficult to diversify the stories that are told.
So why did I pick up The Gentleman of Moscow? Well, it was chosen as the book of the month for my book club.
And it turns out that it is a genuinely incredible book. Sure, it could be classed as literary fiction if that works for you, but it is also historical fiction, a romance, a thriller, and a tragedy. It has espionage and mystery, love and loss, found family and all-consuming loneliness. It will make you laugh and cry and see the world in a way you never have before.
The book opens in 1922, just as the Bolsheviks have taken power of the newly formed Soviet Union. We join the narrative as Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is being sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. He is sentenced to life inside the hotel (which actually exists and is still open today!), and will be executed should he step outside of its walls.
Not the most joyful of openings to a story, but I fell in love with the Count right from his first line. You kind of can’t help it. He has an aristocratic charm that makes him confident everything is going to work out just the way he wants, even in a courtroom full of people who want him dead.
Watching his journey as he adjusts to his new life is a genuine honour, and the story is full of unexpected events, delightful characters, and just enough history to keep it tethered to real life. What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that maybe I was a little bit wrong about literary fiction.