With subtle humor and philosophical asides worthy of Montaigne, whose book is referenced in the story, Amor Towles records the life of Count Alexander Rostov, under house arrest in Moscow’s luxurious Hotel Metropol in A Gentleman in Moscow. The story follows the Count from 1922 to 1954, embellishing Russian history with the Count’s determination and sophisticated view of his situation.
Prison can be anywhere – sometimes within our own walls – but knowing escape is possible can make life less forbidding. Rostov is spared the execution many of his wealthy royal contemporaries suffered in the overthrow of the monarchy because of a poem he has written. His exile is in the hotel he has frequented, but his suite is replaced by a one hundred foot closet. If he dares to leave the hotel, he will be shot on sight.
For a while, Rostov manages to continue a leisurely lifestyle, reading his papers in the lobby, taking his meals in the hotel restaurants, drinking brandy at the bar. The gold sovereigns stashed in his Archduke uncle’s desk help, but inevitably the limits of the grand hotel become claustrophobic.
Throughout Rostov’s tenure at the hotel, a series of characters change his view and save his sanity. Just as each person we meet adds something to our lives, each of Towles characters appears just as he needs them. The first, Nina, is a precocious little girl in a yellow dress, a guest at the hotel, who gives him a new purpose and a new view on his restrained circumstances. Later in the book, her daughter repeats the favor, and becomes his surrogate daughter. The workman on the roof, who offers him coffee, saves his from despair, and his three friends – the chef, the maitre’d, and the seamstress – and Anna, the actress who becomes his lover – give him a sense of purpose. Others come and go – bringing with them the history that continues outside the hotel doors, and, at times, offering their influence.
Although Rostov makes the best of his circumstances, it’s hard not to want him to escape or perhaps use his access to spy on the Politburo members who frequent the hotel. Towles punctuates Rostov’s yearning to see the apple trees of his youth, sit in the opera or stroll around the city again. Citing the Count of Monte Cristo, Towles reminds the reader that the mind can break free of any prison, and Rostov, ever the gentleman, makes the best of his circumstances, eventually insinuating himself into the fiber of the hotel’s workings.
Sadly, politics is changing the city and the country; inevitably, these changes seep into Rostov’s domain. Some are funny – when the Bolsheviks remove all the labels from wine bottles; others are painful – when Rostov’s friend is sent to Siberia for challenging a phrase in a text.
Towles divides the story into five “books,” cleverly lulling the reader to a sense of satisfaction at the end of each section, then creating a new set of characters and a new adventure in the next “book.” Just as in The Rules of Civility, Towles uses language to transport the reader to a more sophisticated style of living. It would be difficult to be reading this book while slurping soup; the reader would be more inclined to sit quietly with a glass of wine at hand.
A book to savor – A Gentleman in Moscow left me with a better sense of Russian history, a yearning to have known a man like Count Rostov, and a determination to command my own circumstances.