Last night, I had dinner with a group of friends that I have known for a while. We get together every few weeks or so, put a bottle of wine on the table, and catch up with each other on all the things that are happening, or have happened, or might happen. We ask each other for advice. We giggle (or in my case, laugh very loudly with a noise that might make you think “Is there a donkey here? And did someone set its tail on fire? THAT IS A VERY BAD NOISE.”)and we never leave without making plans for the next time we will see each other, because we like each other, and it’s always good to have future plans to be with people you like. It makes all the days where you have to spend time with people you don’t like endurable. (Sure, it’s easier to avoid people you don’t like, but honestly, unlikable jackwagons have a way of forcing themselves into all kinds of situations.)
The connections that sustain, that provide pleasure, that ring with value, happen with people and—at least for me—with books. Connecting with a book is unpredictable. Falling in love with a book is like falling in love with a person–you caught lightning in your bottle. But what attracts the lightning in the first place? It’s easy to define what repels lightning. Dealbreakers include not sharing your french fries, not letting me eat your french fries, and not offering me any of your french fries. (Also I will need some ketchup.) There’s no way to guarantee that spark between people will turn into a friendship or that opening a book will lead to a new favorite read. There are some ways that make it more likely for a friendship to cement, and that is to start with a character who is delightful, a character who makes all your encounters interesting, a character who manages to command your attention without hogging the spotlight. Such is the Russian gentleman and citizen of the world Count Alexander Rostov in Amor Towles’s absorbing new book, A Gentleman In Moscow. THIS BOOK, Y’ALL.
You: Why is she running around in a circle flapping her hands?
Book: She’ll calm down in a minute
You: Ok but WHY
Book: She does this when she really likes a book
I want to tell you all the things about this book ALL OF THEM PLS READ IT SO WE CAN JUST TALK ABOUT IT OK but in the interest of you not pushing me out of a moving blog, I will reluctantly limit myself to some major fangirling over Count Alexander Rostov. Born into Russian royalty at the turn of the century, Count Rostov behaves as it is expected for a Russian gentleman to behave. He speaks French, he travels, he is educated and worldly, and he conducts himself impeccably in the nuanced, complicated code of a European aristocrat. Unfortunately for him, that whole skill set gets super unpopular at the onset of the Russian revolution. Like, stand-by-that-wall-and-wait-to-get-shot unpopular. Luckily for us, Count Rostov escapes a date with an itchy Bolshevik trigger finger and is instead sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in sunny, balmy Moscow. The book commences as Count Rostov’s trial concludes and spools out a life spent in the same in the same location, never free to go, only free to stay. He is so good at his staying that I am looking into “House Arrest At A Hotel” retirement packages because I am SOLD. I want the deluxe version, where my room is next to Rostov’s and I get to hang out with him at the bar every night, thus fulfilling my family motto “If You Can’t Make Friends Buy Imaginary Book Ones As Part Of Your Retirement Planning.” (We have it inscribed in Latin on our family crest, which is an emu stealing food out of a car at a wildlife safari.)
You: That was a lot of words
You: I’m just saying, it doesn’t seem like she limited herself there
Book: Fangirls have no limits
Russian history is epic, but since 1922 Russian history has attempted to cram all the epic it could possibly ingest into one big history meal. It’s an epic binge. The Revolution, Lenin, World War II, Stalin, the Cold War, the Iron Curtain—it’s a nonstop history carousel. Count Rostov is our witness to these larger events outside the hotel walls, but they happen in A Gentleman in Moscow where so much of history actually happens: in conversations over dinner, or tea, or at the bar. Towles writes Rostov not as a rigid, reactionary protector of his royal class birthright, but as a man who delights in serving others, who seeks out and enjoys the company of all people. Everyone has value in his eyes, and it is his ability to make these connections that save him, over and over again, and make him such a pleasure to spend time with.
Likability is a slippery quality because likability in and of itself is easily fabricated. I mean, sociopaths are likable. Jerks are likable. Justin Bieber is likable. It’s when likability comes wrapped in sincerity that you get magic. You can fake the volume of your hair, you can fake your orgasms, but you can’t really fake sincerity. Rostov isn’t perfect, but he is sincere. Instead of embracing his entitlement to a world lost to him, he blooms where he is planted. Sure, if you have to go to prison, your best case scenario is a hotel as opposed to a—well, a prison. I trust Count Rostov, though. He would have been a gentleman anywhere.
You: Who is faking org—
You: No one told me this was a smut blog
Amor Towles’s first book, Rules Of Civility, is a good one too.