I have some friends who had read this book by Amor Towles and loved it. From what I had heard of it, it sounded like something my dad would enjoy, so I bought it for him as a selfish Christmas present last year so I could read it when he was done. He loved it and then my book club elected to read it and we got to discuss it.
As the title suggests, it’s about a gentleman, not just in Moscow, but stuck in the Metropol hotel. In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov was sentenced to “house” arrest after the Bolshevik uprising for writing an anti-Bolshevik poem. It doesn’t sound like a great start to a book to introduce a character who can’t go anywhere, and for a while I wondered how Towles was going to hold my interest for the next 350 pages, but he handled it beautifully letting the world come to Rostov.
Fortunately for Rostov, he makes friends easily, although he also makes a few enemies. Despite the fact that he’s a gentleman who was brought up to a life of balls and duels and fine foods paired with just the right wine, Rostov lives by his father’s philosophy that you have to master your circumstances before they can master you. So he establishes a routine of reading and dining in the hotel’s restaurants and getting his hair cut, but he also manages to ingratiate himself with the staff and even some of the regular visitors to the hotel.
Rostov becomes friendly with the wait staff and the chef in the hotel’s restaurant and strikes up a friendship with a very opinionated young girl named Nina. He gets to watch her grow up until she has to go off to school, but she comes back to pay a couple visits. During one of those visits, Nina asks Rostov to look after her daughter, Sofia, for a few weeks while she goes looking for her husband, who recently went missing. Of course it’s immediately obvious that it’s going to be more than a temporary arrangement, and sure enough, Nina never comes back. Rostov takes advantage of his contacts to try to find her, but with no luck.
It’s thanks to his contacts at the hotel (and in the current ruling establishment) that Rostov gets to continue taking care of Sofia without anyone getting in his way. By that time he’s started working as a head waiter in the restaurant to give him something to do (I don’t think he’s even getting paid for it). From there, the book follows him as he raises her to adulthood while also having the occasional fling with an actress who stays at the hotel every so often, continuing to work in the restaurant, and giving lessons about European and American culture to a high-level government official.
While this doesn’t sound so bad (and it really isn’t), Rostov is still homesick. His sister is dead (although Towles makes us wait quite a while before telling us how she died) and it sounds like his parents are dead. I think his grandmother is still alive, but he rushed home from France when he heard about the revolution to get her out of the country. That left him vulnerable, which is how he ended up in the hotel.
I loved this book. I loved the characters and the lush descriptions of the world in which Rostov was living (his furniture, the restaurant, the food, the wine, etc.). It kind of made me want to re-watch Downton Abbey, but mostly I was just thoroughly enjoying the book for what it was.
Towles has a great sense of humor and is also an exceptional writer. The prose throughout this book is beautiful and subtle and just a joy to read.
What did you guys read this week? Any other selfish gifts that you were able to enjoy with other people?