If you watch the hardcover fiction bestseller lists, you see a lot of change as new books swap in and out. On the Publishers Weekly list, two stalwarts hold their ground. The first is John Grisham’s Camino Island, a rock-solid thriller that’s a predictable favorite. The second, A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, is more of a surprise. This historical novel, set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, has been on the list for 56 weeks, and it’s selling briskly, at a rate of almost 6,000 copies a week -- 14,000 if you combine print with audio and e-books.
“There are a lot of literary novels that everyone loves that immediately fall away from the bestseller lists. But no matter what thrillers come and go, A Gentleman in Moscow is still there,” Ron Charles, fiction editor at the Washington Post, told me. Which begs the question: what is it about this novel that gives it such staying power?
On a practical level, Towles was set up to succeed. Readers were hungry for a second book from an author whose first, The Rules of Civility, was also a hit. Viking began its campaign supporting A Gentleman in Moscow six months before publishing it in September 2016, and Towles, who by all accounts is a charming and charismatic speaker, has appeared at a jaw-dropping 93 reader events since that date. But success like his can't just be a matter of business planning, or more books would sell the way this one has.
The plot of A Gentleman in Moscow is intriguing, to be sure. After the Bolsheviks take over Moscow in 1917, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, an urbane, unflappable aristocrat, is saved from certain death by a poem he wrote years before – a poem which, despite his pedigree, seemed to espouse the values of the Revolution. So rather than shooting the Count, the Bolsheviks put him under house arrest at a grand hotel, the Metropol, where he lives for the next three decades.
When I spoke to book critics about A Gentleman in Moscow, several said that though his subject matter might not seem as exciting as the thrillers on the bestseller lists, Towles’s hero has qualities that made him especially attractive to readers in 2017. “There’s something about the Count that, to me, stands in stark contrast with the breakdown of civility of our current times,” Leigh Haber, Books Editor at O, the Oprah magazine, says. Towles “writes intelligently about a past that was kinder, where true elegance counted.” Ron Charles agreed. “In a time of such acrimony and lack of taste and decorum, a novel like this that celebrates graciousness and good manners is such a salve.”
Critic Liesl Schillinger noted that A Gentleman In Moscow “feels both timely -- because 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and because Russia is so much in the news of late -– and timeless, because the world and characters he conjures belong to a fictional vision distinctly his own.” Towles, she said, “gives readers a fly-on-the-wall view of some of the inner machinations of the Soviet era, as well as cold-war spycraft.” But above all, fans tell her that they are moved “by the warmth and erudition of Count Rostov, and by his avuncular friendship with another hotel resident, a little Soviet girl named Nina. They also appreciate the abundant references to great Russian literary works that lace the novel. In short, they find the book illuminating and heartwarming.”
A Gentleman in Moscow seems to hit a sweet spot of sensibility and subject matter that attracts a range of readers and avoids the extremes of violence or sex that make other books hard to recommend to, say, your mother. The Post’s Ron Charles said, “It perfectly matches a kind of middle-ground taste that goes both high and low. A little romance, a little historical background, a touch of espionage. It’s almost genetically engineered for lots of different kinds of readers to be drawn to it, and that’s across gender lines.”
I struck up a conversation recently with Chris Lowe, a businessman who had just returned to the U.S. after a trip to Spain and had read A Gentleman in Moscow on his Kindle. Confirming Ron Charles’s comment about the book cutting across gender lines, he told me that his wife and his daughter had both recommended it to him. He was attracted to the Russian setting, and said he liked the idea of “urban survival” in a hotel. “It’s something that all of us who have traveled a lot can ponder and wonder how we could do it.” The reason the book has been so successful, he says, is that “it’s an interesting concept, told in a compelling and entertaining manner, which highlights the triumph of the human spirit.” He’s gone on to recommended it to countless friends.
Lynn Neary, arts correspondent at National Public Radio, feels that the novel’s success rests on recommendations like Lowe’s. “I think that it is an old-fashioned 'word-of-mouth' phenomenon. It’s the kind of book you want to tell a friend about.” And one of the reasons it is so recommendable is -- apologies for the spoiler -- its happy ending. Neary says the story “sounds like it could be a grim read and yet it is quite the opposite. It’s delightful but not simple.” When Neary interviewed Towles, he said that the Count has “a will to joy.” That phrase stayed with Neary. “I think, particularly at this time in history, it is utterly refreshing to read a book with such an affirmative act of optimism at its center. We all need a ‘will to joy’ these days.” As Lowe put it, this novel “makes you smile from ear to ear when you are through.” That, in the end, may be the best answer to why A Gentleman in Moscow has such staying power: it makes readers feel good, and that's worth the price of a hardcover any day.