In this series, I discuss the so-called rules of writing--and how great authors manage to break them.
A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles (Viking Penguin/Penguin Random House)
I'm late to the party on this one. (Or should I say the ball?) I picked up this novel on holiday last summer after hearing a bookseller swoon over it. Turns out he's not the only fan. Everyone and their dog loves this book. And you know what? They're not wrong. The story is cozy and (against all odds) compelling. More on that below.
The year is 1922, and the governing Bolsheviks, who aren't, like, the most fond of Russian nobility, have sentenced the earnest and dignified Count Rostov to a lifetime under house arrest in Moscow's famous Metropol Hotel. He can't attend a ballet at the nearby Bolshoi. He can't visit his favourite café down the block. His family home in the province of Nizhny Novgorod might as well be the moon.
For the first chunk of the book, the Count retreats inward and grieves. He grapples with long stretches of boredom. We get lots of tangents where he just sits and thinks about things, reflecting on his past, pondering the future, mulling the mysteries of the universe. If he has any overarching goal at this point, it's to preserve his old way of life however he can--by donning his smoking jacket for dinner, for example, or taking pleasure in an elegant wine pairing.
Not until the midpoint of the novel do we finally see the Count trying to reinvent himself. I won't spoil the details here because his transformation is truly delightful. My point is that his motivations are quite passive for much of the novel. There, Amor Towles proves himself a true literary rebel!
Why you might want to follow the rules
A character who wants things to stay the same is (nine times out of ten) less compelling than a character fighting to make things different. Grief and boredom are not story-forward emotions because they don't spur action the same way as desire, lust, envy, obsession, etc. Passive emotions are more likely to make a character sit and stew. And that is what we get for much of this book.
Miraculously, it works. I wanted to keep reading even though not a whole lot was happening.
Why it works to break the rules in this case
What, then, makes this story so good? Why does the reader keep turning pages? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. But here are a couple ideas.
For one, Towles sets up a clear tension between what the Count wants (for things to stay the same) and what he ultimately needs (to embrace change). It's an inner conflict, yes, but a strong one. Given that fear of change is a universal human experience, readers can relate to the Count's struggle even though his cultural and historical context is far removed from ours. We all quiver when facing the unknown.
Then there's the Count's sheer likeability. As Ann Patchett wrote in her blurb for this book, "The Count's refinement and genteel nature are exactly what we're longing for." There's a certain goodness to him. Maybe that's a novelty in our times? I don't know.
For whatever reason, he's a guy I wouldn't mind being stuck in a room with.