How has “A Gentleman in Moscow," Amor Towles’ elegant tale of a count enduring house arrest in a grand hotel in 1920s Russia, lingered on the local best-seller list for so long? Seattle Times arts critic Moira Macdonald finds out.
If you keep an eye on the best-seller list provided by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (provided weekly in this newspaper or at pnba.org) you might have noticed something unusual lately. “A Gentleman in Moscow,” Amor Towles’ elegant tale of a count enduring house arrest in a grand hotel in 1920s Russia, was at the top of last week’s hardcover fiction list — two years, almost to the day, since its original publication.
A few weeks ago, a reader asked me why it was that “A Gentleman in Moscow” had lingered on the local best-seller list for so long, when it dropped off The New York Times best-seller list some months ago. I was intrigued, and realized that I wasn’t entirely sure exactly how the two lists were put together, and how they differed. So it seemed time to ask a few questions. (I also realized that I had been saying for nearly two years that I needed to get around to reading “A Gentleman in Moscow.” So I got busy rectifying that. More on that later.)
The PNBA list is one of a number of regional best-seller lists put together weekly by the American Booksellers Association (ABA). Oren J. Teicher, chief executive officer of the ABA, told me in an email that the association has about 625 independent-bookstore members that report sales results every week. Of these, about 65 are part of the PNBA, which comprises locations in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
In contrast, The New York Times best-seller list casts a much wider net. Its website explains that The NYT list is drawn from “tens of thousands” of sources, which include independent bookstores but also digital retailers, chain stores, supermarkets, newsstands and other outlets.
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“A Gentleman in Moscow” was published on Sept. 6, 2016, and made its first appearance on The NYT list on Sept. 25 of that year. Though it never rose to the No. 1 spot, it became a staple of the list for some time; in all of 2017, the paper reported, no other novel spent more time on the hardcover fiction list. After dropping off the list a few times and then reappearing, Towles’ novel seemed to disappear for good in May, after a total of 58 weeks.
On the ABA lists, both nationally and regionally, “A Gentleman in Moscow” was an even bigger success. Teicher reports that it has been in the top 15 on the ABA’s national hardcover fiction list for 103 weeks, and in the PNBA’s list for 98 weeks, where it’s currently No. 1. (Which answered something I wondered: Was “A Gentleman in Moscow” unusually popular in this region? No, apparently readers all over the country have an equal fondness for exiled Russian noblemen and posh hotel lobbies.)
Teicher said that the ABA doesn’t keep statistics for how long a title stays on its lists, but that it is “very unusual for a book to appear for so long.” He attributes the book’s longevity to its popularity with independent booksellers, noting that it is “a favorite hand-sell” — a frequent recommendation — at numerous stores.
Phinney Books owner Tom Nissley, when I chatted with him last week about his new Madison Park bookstore, called the book “quite a phenomenon.” Customers were interested in “A Gentleman in Moscow” initially, he said, because they’d liked Towles’ earlier novel, “The Rules of Civility.” “But then it just started building,” he said. “To me, that’s always a sign of word-of-mouth. It’s well beyond any media that would have happened around the book, or when the author came to town. When something is more popular over time, it’s just readers talking to readers.”
OK, OK, it was clear that I needed to read this book, and I did, curled up in an armchair over a bright holiday weekend. And as a reader talking to readers, I can say that I don’t regret missing a minute of that sunshine. Like so many delightful novels, Towles’ book takes us to a world we couldn’t possibly know (Moscow, just after World War I) and immediately immerses us there; painting a rich picture of the sprawling Metropol Hotel — it has the personality of an imperious dowager, but one who has candy in her pockets — and its various denizens.
Count Alexander Rostov, the former aristocrat at its center, is an irresistible creation; a man of infinite charm and rare gifts. (He has, we learn, an uncanny knack for seating arrangements.) But what pulled me in was the elegance of the narration; the way the story was told by a distinctive voice both remote and intimate, wry and sentimental, telling us of both great events (the book is an offhand primer on midcentury Russian history) and everyday miracles. A child, just like that, grows up; a beloved clock, after many years, continues to chime.
Maybe that’s why “A Gentleman in Moscow” has resonated so much with those who love to read; it gives us the joy of becoming lost in a story, a place, a character and a past — one that we can’t know, but that might feel just a bit like our own. I don’t know how long the book will remain on the ABA list (or when the paperback might emerge, which could well launch it again), but now I’ll look on the title as a friend.
In one of so many enchanting moments in the book, three longtime companions gather late at night in the hotel’s empty dining room to share a special meal, talking and laughing and reminiscing. As one of them demonstrates a previously unknown talent, another gazes at him with a tear in his eye, “feeling that this moment, this hour, this universe could not be improved upon.” Sometimes a book can give you that feeling, too.