Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” is not on my bookshelves. The novel sits on the table beside my favorite spot on the sofa alongside magazines, eyeglass cleaner, a pen and a pad of paper. In other words, the novel is close at hand, just in case. Unlike most of my books, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is not unmarred. At first careful not to break the spine, I considered underlining just one passage: “But imagining what might happen if one’s circumstance were different was the only sure route to madness.” Soon though, I found myself arrowing, circling, starring, and exclamation-pointing my way through Towles’ 30 plus-year account of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s life as an un-person.
However, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is much more than an epic the reader gets to “witness.” It is a guidebook revealing how we can learn to live without and within. Living without the comforts to which we are accustomed drives some to desperation or deep depression. For some, living within means remaining in a perpetual state of meditation where few complications arise or developing a shield that prevents others from beholding their humanity and vulnerability. It means selfishness. Yet, the Count is neither selfish, desperate nor depressed, at least not for long. Instead, he is resilience.
When Count Alexander—who refuses with great wit to repent from his crime of aristocracy—is sentenced to house arrest in a hotel across the street from the Kremlin or be shot, he discovers abundance in his limitations. He is at once profoundly touched by the complicated and sweetly simple lives of those around him and touching, with his thoughtful practicality and gentlemanly considerations.
Towles has with keen intelligence and humor crafted a character study of wisdom, courage and kindness. I’ve never been sadder to finish a novel, but I look forward to reading it again, and again.
Unfortunately, besides crafting thoughtful characters and well-written sentences, there is little good in Ann Patchett’s latest novel. Starting in the mid 1960s, “The Commonwealth” covers five decades in the lives of the Keating and Cousins families.
I enjoyed the manner in which Patchett tells her epic tale and stuck with it hoping to come away with a satisfying finish. However, the few characters with sound judgement get little time in this book. An excess of alcohol at the opening christening party kicks off a slew of poor decisions, starting with the kiss that dissolves marriages, blends families, erects excuses for self-absorbed parents, and molds gun-toting, gin-drinking children. Lives go up in smoke and people die. In the end, nothing much is accomplished.
Numerous movies, television shows and novels have explored scenarios where the United States loses power and Americans are forced to rely on their cunning or innate ingenuity to survive. Emily St. John Mandel was successful in her execution of “Station Eleven,” which avoided the preachiness of so many dystopian tales and effectively wrapped the story in a neat little bow without leaving the bitterness of writer’s convenience.
While author Jolina Petersheim’s “The Alliance” also relays a world where electricity ceases, because of war or other means, she conveys her story in an intriguing setting. The story of Leora Ebersole, her family, neighbors, stranded Englischers, and newcomer Moses Hughes takes place in a Mennonite community where modern conveniences already, for the most part, are shunned. The question here isn’t how to survive without electricity, but how to outlast the many people the outsiders suggest may want to enter and steal their hard-wrought supplies. Should this pacifist community take up arms? Should they welcome the sick and the hungry?
Unfortunately, a familiar love triangle overshadows Jolina Petersheim’s story as do the pervading doubtfulness that takes hold of the novel’s primary character and the novel’s unsatisfying cliffhanger ending.
Still, something is to be said for the fact that I want to know what happened to the characters. Perhaps I’ll find out in a made-for-TV movie.