He can’t leave his hotel. You won’t want to.
From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility–a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel.
In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.
It’s always a shock, after you finish a particularly good book, to look up and see the world go about its business with perfect indifference, while you just sit there, feeling like something has shifted, moved, broken open inside you. The trance of being immersed in your reading is so intense you turn the last page and step forth into the real world with a sense of complete unreality. Like you couldn’t remember being there, the way you might feel when you’re driving home and you suddenly find yourself in front of the garage, unable to remember the actual drive.
This is how this book made me feel, and I’ve no doubt that it will reside, for many years, in the low-lit corners of my memory. I am already looking forward to reading it again.
So, what’s this book about?
The glory that had shone upon Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov—a member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt—vanishes when he is unceremoniously sentenced to life confinement in Moscow’s Metropol hotel.
But for all that it was a prison, it was a luxurious one. The year is 1922, and behind it all, looms the haunting specter of a country that is at the fragile end of a brutal history; an ill-timed glance or a foot set in an unfortunate spot could bring down death and woe upon a person, in the form of a bullet to the head or an exile to Siberia.
But Alexander Ilyich Rostov finds a fire, a fierce brightness in this new existence. The Hotel Metropol is a world unto itself, and within its walls, “the world had come and gone”. Men and women were drawn to it from every far-flung crag of every country, spilling their stories while the count carefully gathers them up for safekeeping. And over the years, Alexander also forges a link between him and several residents of the hotel—the chefs, the doormen, the bartenders, the seamstresses—and creates a door that he can knock at and count on being opened at any time.
But soon the years begin to press into a moment more akin to a yellow-edged photo than a vivid film, and the count begins to feel, for the first time, the true weight of his sentence. The fear that he wouldn’t ever leave the hotel, that he would stay and grow old and bent and be put in the ground there, becomes a monster that dogged his heel, and he walks on through his days trying so desperately not to meet its eyes—lest it pounces.
The hotel is the count’s prison, and it is his sanctuary, but for how much longer can it be either?
To what end, he wondered, had the Divine created the stars in heaven to fill a man with feelings of inspiration one day and insignificance the next?
It’s not at all an easy task to make a story of imprisonment within a strait and unchanging setting feel so hugely mesmerizing. Fortunately, Towles is a maestro of his craft, and he sets off all the fireworks he can with it. The resulting book—like the count—thrives in captivity.
I will not go on and on about the beauty of the prose, how Towles pulls you deep into the currents of his language, and makes you want to linger, about the gorgeously realized setting or the propulsive plot, and how I had to marshal my tired eyes in order to see the pages, driving myself past exhaustion to a kind of surreal and tenacious wakefulness, because I just couldn’t stop reading. I will not rhapsodize about the author’s voice: the Austen-esque arched eyebrow, the conspiratorial wink, the sly, confiding tone. The piercing irony and the craftiness with which he always seems to know the right nerve to touch, at exactly the right moment, to wound or to excite or to outrage most.
Instead, I want to talk about the characters, about the deep and protean themes, and how much pure and unfettered fun this book was. A Gentleman in Moscow is as funny and playful as it is smart and profound. Towles ruminate meaningfully on selfhood, friendship, parenthood and the devastating unattainability of modest hopes, and those ruminations are driven by a deep urge to make observations about people, to see them, really see them, in all their glorious, and sometimes mundane, glory. People, after all, “deserve not only our consideration,” writes Towles, “but our reconsideration.”
It is undeniable that A Gentleman in Moscow lives and dies on its characters—so richly drawn and so idiosyncratically compelling are they—and the novel thrives with the people it focuses on, who, together, make something like the word family.
The details of the count’s life at the Hotel Metropol are vividly painted, and it’s a treat to simply spend time with him. He has such a strong presence to him, as though he breathes all the air on the page and only leaves enough for other characters by benevolence only. I loved his dignity, his steadiness, his sense of humor, his heartbreaking thoughtfulness—and how manages to preserve those qualities despite his circumstances (which he was ferociously committed to “mastering”). He takes joy in savoring the simple pleasures of life—good wine, good company, and a good book. He charmed people, and let himself be charmed by him, and right there in that prison, he found belonging.
“These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”
The count is also utterly captivating in his interactions with other characters: Nina, the precocious 9-year-old who holds a master key which allows her into every room; Emile, the grouchy cook with his caustic whit and cavernous gloom; and Andrey, the French maître d’ with a preternatural knowledge of the hotel’s inner workings and preternaturally agile hands. Their presence was like a warm stone the count cupped in his hands, and I relished the feeling that their solitudes had joined together, canceled each other’s out. There is tragedy at the heart of this story, after all, but there is also unimaginable tenderness—and it’s what follows you off the page.
It comes as no surprise to me that this novel was a stokingly popular hit, and I’m so glad I read it. If you’re worried this may not be your thing—like I was—trust me: A Gentleman in Moscow is your thing, and you’re doubtless going to enjoy your time here.
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