This month’s read-alike focus is the novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Towles has written one previous novel, Rules of Civility, centered around the marvelous Katy Kontent, an independent young working woman in 1930s New York.
Novels are a bit like people: it can be hard to explain why you like one so much, and it can be downright impossible to find one that’s “just the same,” because they are all unique. This is when librarians start to ask about appeal factors: what did you like about the book? Was it the strong characters, the ingenious plot, the lush description, the humor, the imagination, the particular writing style or voice?
Towles’ novels are certainly character-driven, though setting is also powerfully important. A Gentleman in Moscow is set in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, where Count Alexander Rostov is under house arrest. Though his movements are circumscribed, he has his memories, as well as what news of the outside world filters in through newspapers, friends, and acquaintances; Russia changes while Rostov stays in the Metropol.
Here are some other character-driven novels set in interesting times and/or places.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017): This novel is even more recent than A Gentleman in Moscow and there may be a bit of a wait for it too – but it is well worth the wait. A sweeping epic of a Korean family living in Japan from about 1910-1989, Pachinko is full of characters with great integrity, suffering and surviving historical circumstances out of their control.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (2013): “A big, old-fashioned story that spans continents and a century” (Publishers Weekly), it begins with Henry Whittaker but is largely the story of his daughter Alma, from her childhood through her adolescence and into adulthood. Disappointed in love, Alma focuses her attention on the natural world, and comes up with a theory very close to Darwin’s – before his was published.
Fever by Mary Beth Keane (2013): Everyone has heard of Typhoid Mary – but who was she really? An Irish immigrant to New York with a passion for cooking and a need to survive on those skills. Keane humanizes “Typhoid” Mary Mallon and brings New York in the early 1900s to life vividly. This is top-notch historical fiction with a great character at its heart.
The Third Son by Julie Wu (2013): Saburo is the third son of a Taiwanese family in Japan-occupied Taiwan. Mistreated by his family, yet loyal to them, he struggles to become educated and go to a university in the United States. Once there, he must decide whether to follow his own desires, or do what his family wants.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012): Past and present collide when an old Italian man shows up on a movie studio lot in the present day. He’s looking for an actress who visited his hotel in the 1960s, and he draws others into his search. The story alternates between past and present, with lush descriptions of the Italian coast.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011): Patchett’s most recent novel, Commonwealth, was published last fall and is still in high demand. But she has published several other novels, as well as a memoir, a collection of personal essays, and a graduation speech. Her 2011 novel, State of Wonder, sends pharmaceutical researcher Marina Singh into the Amazon jungle to retrieve a colleague’s body and finish his work there. This isn’t a straightforward task to begin with, and it becomes even more complicated when Marina discovers the nature of her colleague’s work.
Tip for finding “readalikes”: Try using our database NoveList, which you can access from home with your library card number.
Are you choosing a book for your book club to read? If everyone in your group plans on getting a library copy, make sure there isn’t a long wait. Check out our “What makes a good book club book?” blog post for more tips.
Want a readalike recommendation? Leave a comment below (e.g. “I just finished Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning and I’m looking for another mystery series to dig into”).