Moscow, 1922. Count Alexander Rostov – member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – faces a Bolshevik tribunal and the end to life as he knows it as he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat. But instead of being sentenced to a bullet in the head or send off to Siberia, Rostov is put under house arrest in the Metropol hotel across the street from the Kremlin, where he has been inhabiting luxurious suites for several years. Instead of the generous rooms he has gotten to know so far, the count is made to move into the hotel’s attic with just a few of his belongings. But at least he will remain in Moscow, frozen in place but not in time as the city and the world around him changes. And even though he has been condemned to the role of the observer, Rostov often seems to find himself at the centre of history during the three decades this novel spans.
Behind the constantly revolting doors of the Metropol, Alexander Rostov discovers a new world of his own. With the help of his nine-year old accomplice Nina, he explores the rooms behind the rooms, the doors that are locked to the normal hotel guest (but not to Nina who has miraculously acquired a master key). He finds close friends in the Metropol’s personnel and eventually becomes a member of staff himself. Over the decades men and women from all over the world enter the hotel and cross paths with the count, who is a generous and diligent observer of people and stories, as well as passionate lover of small pleasures such as the right bottle of wine with a good meal, a weekly appointment at the barber’s or an essay by Michel de Montaigne. He savours all moments, which allows him to master any circumstance life throws at him and he always remains thoughtful, considerate and perfectly charming.
The count is surrounded by a full cast of loveable and quirky characters, from the feisty Nina, to the moody chef and the attentive maître d’. They become Rostov’s family and the magic ingredient that keeps the story going, even if the characters are not actually going anywhere. And finally, Nina’s daughter Sofia becomes the source of purpose for the count’s life, when the care for the young girl falls into his hands – a relationship that lovingly portrays the dynamics between older and younger generations. This wonderful cast of characters might be the engine behind the story, but the detailed and enchanting descriptions of the Metropol offer the perfect backdrop. What makes this novel so absorbing is not only the quick-witted humour of the narration, but the careful and elegant way every scene is constructed, however small and seemingly insignificant it might be. At certain moments A Gentleman in Moscow reminded me of one of my favourite films: Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
This might not be the right book for a reader who prefers plot-driven novels and while I enjoyed Towles’ joyful use of language most of the time, it did leave me slightly impatient every now and then. But for those who love to dive into a different world, into the charm of an era bygone, A Gentleman in Moscow offers vividly painted scenery, grasps the reader’s attention with its playfulness and generosity and wins you over with an invitation to conspiratorial musings.