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Tomorrow I’m hosting our monthly book club lunch. I should be frantically cooking and cleaning, but I have the Latvian Stew on simmer and my book club friends will probably forgive me a bit dust. Besides, we’re all aging and it’s possible they may not see the dust. (I like to think that my aging friends don’t notice my wrinkles either.) Anyway, we know each other very well and they will understand that I had to take the time to write this now, on this day after the election of Donald Trump.
First, let me tell you about the book we’ll be discussing. The protagonist in “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles, is Count Alexander Rostov who has returned to Russia after the revolution to help his grandmother escape. He succeeded in getting his grandmother safely away, but he is tried as a “unrepentant aristocrat” by a Bolshevik tribunal who might have had him shot or sent to Siberia. However, a decade earlier he was credited with having written a “revolutionary” poem, so he is instead sentenced to spend the remainder of his life living in an attic room at the elegant Hotel Metropol in Moscow.
If he leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight. I won’t give away anymore of this mesmerizing and atmospheric novel except to tell you that in the end, the Count manages to live a very large life despite his house arrest. Amor Towles, who also wrote the marvelous “Rules of Civility” is a masterful writer. His language is beautiful, his characters nuanced, his plot perfectly paced. I expect this new book to be an award-winner as well as a best-seller. But you should read it because you will gain insight into not only what it was like to live in the Soviet Union during the turbulent decades of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev, but how love, and kindness and true nobility of spirit will triumph in the end.
So, yes, I’m excited about this book, but hosting is always a lot of work because my book club friends are over-the-top entertainers. These are lovely women—each and every one of them—but mother-of-pearl they are hard to keep up with. And, goodness, I try. I think it started when we read “Poisonwood Bible” and Roberta transformed her dining room into an African jungle. Then Boots created an island out of parsley and had a life-sized stuffed tiger on her side-board when we read “Life of Pi”.
And the food? Plan on dieting for a week after our monthly Thursday meeting. I still remember Susan’s caramel cake when we read “The Help”. (I know my thighs do—some people have muscle memory; my body has fat memory.)
So, when it’s my turn, I stress a bit. Not only do I have to dust, but there are linens, napkin rings, centerpieces and most importantly, a menu to consider. But I feel good about tomorrow. Because Count Rostov was not only erudite and witty, but a gourmet, and the Hotel Metropol had the best restaurant in Moscow, so there is an abundance of food and drink in the book. I chose the Latvian Stew with pork, apricots and caramelized onions because it looked do-able and I could find a recipe on-line. I’m a little worried that the dark beer will make the gravy too hoppy, but the flavors will mellow after a night in the refrigerator and the addition of roasted sweet potatoes should be perfect. I’ll also serve an anise and orange salad, some caviar canapés, Russian Tea Cakes for desert, and, of course, champagne. The Count always had a glass of champagne at lunch.
My book club started in 1993. There used to be eleven of us, but Linda moved to Seattle. Now there are 10. What I’ve learned over the years is that how people react to books reveals their core character and quite a few of their secrets. After all these years, I can almost always predict who will like the book and who won’t and why. From an outsider’s perspective, we’re not very diverse. We’re all white woman of a certain age and privilege who have the luxury of being able to spend a bit of time reading novels and entertaining. But, we run the spectrum of deeply religious to atheist, very liberal to quite conservative. And there is almost a generation of difference in age from youngest to oldest. Each of us has been shaped over many years by many factors. We have seen our children grow—and some die—we have married, divorced and widowed. We have shared a lot; we understand each other. But we do not always agree.
So, I, probably the most liberal of the group, have been treading lightly the last few months. I was appalled at even the candidacy of a man like Donald Trump. And it was beyond my comprehension that he could win. It’s true I wasn’t a huge Hillary fan, but she seemed by far the best alternative to me. Last night I watched the election returns with disbelief turning to horror. I barely slept last night.
I got up, drank coffee and read the details of the debacle. And now it’s time to move on. We will abide by the election results and hope for the best. Despite my many doubts and misgivings, we will see what he can do. Hopefully the office will make the man. And I respect the office. I will call him Mr. President and I will not refer to his orange-ness or his hands.
And I will do what I can do. Tomorrow, as we begin our lunch, I will raise my glass of champagne, and in the spirit of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, I shall propose a toast: Here is to surviving and thriving—regardless of regime.