Saturday, June 3, 2017

Captivity amid luxury, perversely oppressive or liberation? THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 and A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Captivity amid luxury, perversely oppressive or liberation?  That question drives the engrossing stories of two entertaining and revealing novels.

In The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware's captivating mystery (pardon pun), aspiring travel writer Laura Blacklock gets the break of her career--a dream assignment to cover the launch of a "boutique" cruise ship. Laura knows she must focus on this opportunity but she's sleepless and hyper, after an unexplained break-in at her flat. A parting argument with her beloved boyfriend, didn't help her jangled nerves..

After the mayhem in her dingy flat, the small cruise ship is especially gorgeous. From the dizzying reflections of white walls and polished wood made by a show stopping chandelier to spacious diningrooms and cabins  that allow natural light, the ship is designed for maximal beauty. The attractive staff is impeccable, as are the chic meals, though the food is unidentifiable. There is even a luxury spa. Laura begins to enjoy her enviable position, the attentions of the high profile media guests, and takes too much of the free flowing alcohol.

But it doesn't relieve her anxiety. Whether it's  the pressure of the assignment or the break-in, she tosses in her large beautiful bed, aware the ship's just a "metal can"on the high seas. She dines with the guests, all too aware of their secret agendas, including an old boyfriend angling for a tryst. There's also the mystery of their handsome host's wife and the source of his fortune, a frail recluse. Then there's the fact of the woman she met in the next cabin, who has disappeared without a trace.

When Laura persists in finding out what happened, glamour evaporates. Key to this mystery is liberation from self-deception. The heroine's seduction by a chance of a lifetime, becomes a truth seeking ordeal of strength. A very deserving bestseller.

A vacation in unacccustomed luxury supposedly creates a sense that real life can satisfy fantasy. You can be happy, even if for a week. What happens, if you are fortunate enough to attain this luxurious existence as a daily habit? And, if the pleasantries of habit  have no end, are they still pleasure or purgatory? This is the dilemma of  the hero in Amor Towles very elegant novel, The Gentleman in Moscow. 

When the novel opens, Count Alexander Rostov is interviewed by Communists, who have deposed the Czar. Aristocrats are outlaws, mostly shot or sent to work camps. Their property is confiscated, homes are burnt down. Count Rostov receives amnesty because he's credited with writing a famous poem that inspired the revolution.  Since he admits revolution was not his intention, he is sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol Hotel, where he's lived for 20 years. If he leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight.

His breakfasts in his spacious windowed with rooms overlooking the Bolshoi, his visits to the barber, meals in the excellent restaurant and apertifs at the bar, are his life in the hotel appropriate to his status as a gentleman. His "excellency" had a place in society; esteemed for his wit and knowledge, his character and family heritage. The hotel has been his home, a refuge after a ballet, a gala, a concert, a rendez-vous with a beauty. But this existence is gone. As a "former person," he's ejected from his rooms and possessions for a hidden storage area on a high floor with one small window. His privilege has become a purposeless prison.

How Rostov spends the rest of his life in the hotel and finds a way to be a gentleman with a code of civility and honor is fascinating. It's a story of the timeless worlds of  society within the revolving doors of the Metropol. Eventually, the Count finds new purpose. He engages in the life of the hotel, both upstairs and downstairs, He finds employment, love, unexpected family, and even gains the respect of his enemies and true friendship among his aesthetic peers. Yet time does not stand still, even in the Metropol. He absorbs huge changes in the world and engages in it from his insular perch in the hotel. Only in his sixties, must he act in the outside world for his daughter's future and his own.

His scheme, an ingenious culmination of talents and perspective, could have only been developed in his state of captivity. Interesting that the Count's loss of his  privileged life as an aristocrat for house arrest in the hotel,, meant a life more privileged than much of the Soviet Union. And, at the end, like Laura, he succeeds, because captivity enabled him to break out of self-imposed molds. Both become free to pursue their desired fates. Privilege had little to do with that.

I would suggest A Gentleman in Moscow, because it's delightful, unexpected, clever and wise. It gives a glimpse of not just the vanished world of Russian aristocracy, but the mind-set of the revolutionaries, who set about reversing starvation and illiteracy. They succeeded, but in this novel, you see the cultural cost.