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Posts Tagged ‘The Rules of Civility’

moscowOh, I have such a crush on the title character of Amor Towles’ new novel A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, digital galley). Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov may be a Former Person to the Bolsheviks who have sentenced him to permanent house arrest in 1922 at Moscow’s grand Metropol hotel, but he’s my new book boyfriend. Like the marvelous tale he inhabits, he has substance and style, intelligence and wit, elegance and charm. Forgive me while I swoon.

Rostov makes the best of his forced relocation from his luxury suite to a cramped attic room, paring down his possessions to the necessities. Still he worries the walls may soon close in on him like a biscuit tin. His solution is to make himself even more at home in the hotel, dining in its restaurants, receiving visitors in the grand lobby, making a standing Tuesday appointment with the hotel barber. He also forges strong ties with hotel chef Emile and maitre d’ Andrey, uniting with them against the conniving Party plant working his way up the hotel’s management hierarchy. A famous actress invites Rostov to her room, and thus begins a discreet affair.

But but before that is Rostov’s mentoring friendship with young Nina, the lively daughter of a bureaucrat temporarily living at the Metropol. Nina has a passkey, and she introduces him to the hotel’s secret storerooms and hidden closets. They eavesdrop on visitors and guests from the ballroom balcony, and when Nina finally leaves, she presents Rostov with an invaluable gift. She will return as a grown woman requesting a favor that will change his life forever.

All credit to Towles, who wrote the splendid The Rules of Civility, for crafting another layered period piece, this one suffused with a Russian sensibility studded with references to history, culture and literature. A Gentleman in Moscow is both expansive and intimate as it covers and compresses decades. Imagine a kaleidoscopic combination of  Casablanca and Chekhov, with a little bit of Eloise.

Almost all of the book takes place inside the Metropol — Rostov will be shot if he ventures over its threshold — but there is one heart-stopping hospital run, and another character makes a clandestine trip to Paris. The Metropol is in Theatre Square, near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, so the outside world can be glimpsed from the windows, as when the mourners line the streets for Stalin’s funeral. And politics play out in the hotel itself; Khruschev is a dinner guest at an important meeting. There is intrigue and suspense, especially as the book nears its end.

I didn’t want it to end, to have to check out of the Metropol and bid farewell to Rostov and company. That being said, the finale was all I’d hoped it would be.

 

 

 

 

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Nearing the end of August, and I’m still scanning summer book lists, as if I didn’t have enough incoming on my radar. Blogging has taken a back seat to reading and napping on these slow, syrupy days. My mom’s here, and we seem to be competing as to how many books we can each finish before heading to South Carolina this weekend. We’ll drop off the library books on the way out of town.

Mom didn’t much care for Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, not enough plot for her. But I loved this evocative period piece as Brooklyn native Katey Kontent, the 25-year-old daughter of a Russian immigrant, traverses New York society in 1938. She’s working as a secretary for a Wall Street law firm at book’s beginning, hitting small jazz clubs with her pal Eve Ross, a well-off Midwestern beauty who doesn’t want to be under anyone’s thumb.

Both girls fall into the orbit of handsome banker Tinker Grey, who influences them in unexpected ways. Moving warily among Manhattan’s smart young things, Katey is taken up by a shy millionaire who teaches her to shoot, as well as by an enigmatic widow who pushes her toward a career. By year’s end, Katey, naturally smart, also has wised to the ways of the world and the wealthy, having encountered love, ambition, betrayal and regret.

First-time Towles’ writing is lovely, and the dialogue witty, even if it is set off by distracting, pretentious dashes instead of regular quote marks.  — Why, oh why?

What I like most about Laura Lippman’s stand-alone crime novels is that they are largely character-driven and are meticulously layered as to setting, thought and emotion. By the end of The Most Dangerous Thing, I felt as if I knew the Baltimore neighborhood of Dickeyville and the wooded hills of adjoining Leakin Park.

I’d immediately recognize, too, the five middle-aged men and women who shared outdoor adventures in the mid-1970s as young teens and pre-teens. Sweet, manic Gordon, known as Go-Go, was the youngest of the three Halloran brothers. It’s his sudden death at book’s beginning that reunites the remaining quartet, all of whom are marked by a tragic summer incident they’ve kept secret for more than 30 years. Now journalist Gwen wonders if it’s time to come clean, not realizing that she knows only part of the story, and that the kids’ aging parents also have a claim to the past.

Lippman moves nimbly from one character’s perspective to another, shuttling between past and present as the chickens come home to roost, so to speak. The chapters told in the collective plural are especially effective and had me recalling my own free-range suburban childhood, when stranger-danger was relatively unknown.

A decade later, things had changed dramatically, evidenced by Megan Abbott’s haunting The End of Everything, which pivots on Lizzie Hood’s 13th summer, when her best friend Evie vanished. Lizzie was there. “I saw her, that hank of dark hair, sports socks tugged high over knees. I saw her. Evie was there, and then Evie was gone.”

Because Lizzie remembers a lurking car and maybe who was driving it, she becomes the center of attention, basking in the glow of Evie’s warm, laughing father. She’s always envied Mr. Verver’s close relationship with his daughters, especially pretty, older Dusty, who wears frothy pastel dresses on her dates and comes home to dance in the dawn. Now it’s Lizzie’s turn to be the wanted, needed one. She misses Evie, worships Dusty, adores Mr. Verver. Her heart is sick, her dreams confused. Where is Evie?

“We’re no longer two summer-brown kids with tangles of hair and jutting kid teeth. I don’t know when it happened, but it did. Lately, things have been hovering in her face, and I couldn’t fathom it. I had things too, new things twisting under my skin, but I didn’t know what they were. It felt like she knew her own zig-zagging heart, and I was just killing time.”

Open Book: I borrowed Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility (Viking) from the library, read a review copy of Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing (Morrow), and bought a hardcover of Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything (Little, Brown). Next on my list is The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison (Washington Square Press), a galley I’ve been saving for next week’s vacation and which Mom just finished. Her endorsement — “You’re going to like this. It’s a different World War II story” — makes me eager to start this rite-of-passage tale. Young London evacuee Anna Sands finds herself on a Yorkshire estate-turned-school run by a childless couple whose marriage is unraveling.  Ah, summer reading. I am so still there.

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