With The Rules of Civility, his acclaimed debut novel of 1930s New York, Amor Towles set new standards for elegant prose, wit, and nuanced depiction of class and character. In his second novel this impeccable stylist covers Soviet Russia from the 1920s to the 1950s—but history isn’t really his focus here. Rather, long beguiled by Moscow’s grand Hotel Metropol, Towles wondered what it would be like to live amid such glamor all the time; he dreamt up A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, $27) to find out. The eponymous figure--perhaps the last of his kind—is Count Alexander Rostov. Truly an “unrepentant aristocrat,” Rostov faces down the Bolsheviks with fine manners and social graces. This personal code of conduct sees him through when he becomes a Former Person in 1922 and is sentenced to indefinite house arrest in the Metropol, where he adapts his impeccable manners to his new position as headwaiter, tutors Soviet apparatchiks in French, and identifies as G-sharp the creak of the mattress springs in the tiny attic room he occupies for thirty-two years. In this shimmering story of graciousness under pressure, both Rostov and the Hotel retain their dignity throughout the Soviet era, rising above the period’s privations, repressions, and dreaded midnight knocks at the door.
There can never be too many New York novels, especially New York novels as vivid and passionate as Christodora (Grove, $26), by Tim Murphy. Murphy paints the lives of his many characters against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, art, and the changing city. The stories he tells are stunning, gritty, and devastating. Murphy takes the reader right into the 1980s and inside the devastation and broken lives of those affected by the epidemic, as well as chronicling lesser-known histories of AIDS activism. The disease is the great equalizer, and yet ultimately Christodora is not just about the fight against AIDS. It is also about struggling against personal demons, addiction, and mental illness as well as about the search for family and forgiveness. Chapter by chapter, the characters’ stories piece together a great narrative quilt that makes this novel one of the most emotionally intense and extraordinary reading experiences.
Rabih Alameddine’s haunted and haunting fifth novel encompasses East-West tensions, racism, gender issues, illness, and more, though it unfolds over the course of just a few hours in the waiting room of a San Francisco psychiatric clinic. Visited by The Angel of History (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26) and other demons, Jacob, a Yemeni-Lebanese poet, is hearing voices. He’s heard them before, though not in a while, and now the return of familiars such as Death, Satan/Iblis, the Fourteen Holy Helpers (martyred saints no longer officially recognized) threatens to overwhelm him in a flood of unbearable memories, from his early years with his mother as part of the “whorehold” of a Cairo brothel to his father’s abandonment of young Ya’qub to be (re) educated by the French nuns of a Catholic school—all punctuated by news of ongoing drone attacks in Yemen. But what Jacob feels most keenly is the loss of his partner and many, many friends twenty years before. “AIDS killed all of us,” Jacob says, but, in fact, though grief left him “roofless in a downpour,” it did not kill him. Jacob survived—not, as he thinks, “in order to be lonely,” but to remember. As his paralyzing anger at last loosens, he wrests it into the form of stories, journal entries, and Satan’s interviews with the figures in Jacob’s life. As complex as its protagonist, Alameddine’s book is a dazzling cubist portrait of a man deeply hurt by history.