A little over a week ago, however, I recalled the note that I had made. I was in Porter Square Books. There was haste because our family was preparing to board a plane that would cross the Atlantic that evening. The bookstore’s only copy of A Gentleman in Moscow was the large, hardcover version. Considering that my carry-on backpack was soon to be bulky with my son’s extra clothing, snacks, books, and one or two of his toys, the large covers and easily-readable pages did not physically appear to be the ones to purchase. Instead, I looked at the book that Towles had published in 2011. The reviews quoted on the soft and more-conveniently sized covers indicated both that the novel had made some noise seven years ago and that my unfamiliarity with his writing proved that I was, as usual, far from the pulse of the latest literary trends. The image on the front cover was also familiar. On a recent trip to Minnesota I had seen it in my friend Colleen’s hand. This was the final touch that made me buy the novel; Colleen and her husband had taste and also had good sense about which pages should be read on a beach.
Our family trip was to Spain. In fact, it is in Spain where I am writing these words. There is something special about reading in English while being in a country where English isn’t the predominant language. It is, at least for me, easier to concentrate and let myself be absorbed by a text. This is at least partially due to the reduced number of linguistic distractions; it is easier to concentrate in one language while being immersed in another. The opposite holds true when I am in an English-speaking country.
Brief opinion of the book: It was excellent. At one stage in the novel the protagonist, Katherine Kontent, is about to depart Anne Grandyn’s office. At the door, Ms. Grandyn leaves Ms. Kontent with an epitaph-worthy statement: “Most people have more needs than wants. That’s why they live the lives they do. But the world is run by those whose wants outstrip their needs”. Ms. Kontent is left both thoughtful and speechless by this notion. After some silence, she responds with the only conclusion she can reach: “You’re very good with the closing remark, Anne”. This exchange is a microcosm of one of the more endearing qualities of Towles’s writing. It at once draws you in, while also laughing at itself. It is just the right combination of punch and subtlety. Also, unlike most things I have written, it almost always leaves the reader with a striking closing sentence.