In the year 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov has been sentenced to House arrest at the famed Moscow Hotel Metropol. Once of the landed elite of Nizhy Novgorod, the Count must live out the rest of his days in one small hotel room. As the Bolsheviks have persevered following their revolution, no long are there ruling classes in Russia, only comrades. It is under these conditions that Count Rostov has become a former person who can no longer step outside of the Metropol. Using this premise, Amor Towles has woven prose to create an enchanting story that makes up the Count’s changed course of existence.
Over time, Count Rostov grew to call himself the luckiest man in Russia. This realization, however, occurs after he has been in the hotel Metropol for over thirty and forged close friendships with her staff and inhabitants. At first, he is a once proud man who has had all of his material possessions taken away from him and has to make do with life in a room, until the day that the Count encounters nine-year-old Nina, altering the course of his life. A precocious girl with an eye for adventure, Nina takes the Count with her on all of her forays through the hotel. No longer is the Count confined to a room with his books and manuscripts, but at the whims of an enchanting palace. House arrest becomes luxurious instead of the intended punishment.
Towles creates a compelling cast of characters to complement the Count, none more vital to sustaining his existence than Sofia, Nina’s daughter who she leaves in his care. Rather than resenting this turn of events, the Count raises Sofia as his own daughter, and two become inseparable. Yet, Sofia is raised by the entire staff of the Metropol: Emile, the head chef of the Boyarsky restaurant; Andrey, the maitre d’ restaurant; Marina, the seamstress who becomes a mother figure; and Vasily the concierge. The group becomes like family over the course of the Count’s house arrest, and with the luxurious conditions of the lobby, bar, and restaurant, it becomes evident that the Count is the luckiest man in all of Russia.
What makes A Gentleman in Moscow a true work of historical fiction are Towles’ apt descriptions of life occurring outside of the Metropol’s walls. Stalin has taken control of the country, and Russians can either join the party, get shipped to Siberia, or otherwise conveniently disposed of. Relations with the west are tenuous at best but Towles relays these feelings in the Count’s relations with American ambassador Richard Wilshire, who becomes a key figure in the novel. As long as one has friends within the party, which the Count manages to attain, even enemies like him can remain safe on a daily basis, even if it means living within the walls of a hotel.
A Gentleman in Moscow evokes an era of the tsar when the city rivals Paris and London as a destination for elite classes throughout Europe. A member of the landed aristocracy prior the Bolshevik Revolution, Count Rostov is well versed in literature, history, and appears to be a true renaissance man. Through his relationship with Nina and Sofia, Towles shows the Count to have a genuine soft spot in his heart as well, turning him into a truly memorable character.
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