Published September 2016 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley
When, in 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count 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 a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
I have been waiting for this book for more than four years. In 2012, Towle's debut novel, Rules of Civility, was one of my favorite books of the year, perhaps, in no small part, because it was so unexpected. This time, I expected a lot of Towles - smart writing, a wonderful sense of place, characters I wanted to know. Towles delivers. I have already added this book to my list of favorites for the year. I doubt it will be knocked off the list at year's end.
One reviewer said that this book could have been set anywhere, given that nearly the entire setting is a fine hotel. I respectfully disagree. Through the patrons, the employees, and the newspapers the Count reads daily, the greater setting is made clear - from young Nina's stay with her father who is a party member to her own later affiliation with the party and the consequences of that, from the first appearance of "the Bishop" as an unskilled waiter clearly sent to spy on the employees to his rise in the ranks, from the early meetings of committees in the ballroom to the one-on-one meetings between the Count and a party official.
But...this is not a story about Russia, it's the story of one man who must learn to deal with the end of life as he has known it.
"As we age, we are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade. We are familiar with the songs our grandparents favored, after all, even though we never danced to them ourselves. At festive holidays, the recipes we pull form the drawer are routinely decades old, and in some cases even written in the hand of a relative long since dead. And the objects in our homes? The oriental coffee tables and well-worn desks that have been handed down from generation to generation? Despite being "out of fashion," not only do they add beauty to our daily lives, they lend material credibility to our presumption that the passing of an era will be glacial. But under certain circumstances, the Count finally acknowledged, this process can occur in the comparative blink of an eye."Just as he begins to feel the walls coming in on him, the Count meets nine-year-old Nina, who is something of an "Eloise," a girl who has had the time on her hands to explore her surroundings thoroughly and who teaches the Count that there is much more to his world than he has ever known.
"Nina had not contented herself with the views from the upper decks. She had gone below. Behind. Around. About. In the time that Nina had been in the hotel, the walls had not grown inward, they had grown outward, expanding in scope and intricacy. In her first weeks, the building had grown to encompass the life of two city blocks. In her first months, it had grown to encompass half of Moscow. If she lived in the hotel long enough, it would encompass all of Russia."Once again, Towles impresses with his wit, ability to bring to paint a scene, and fairness to his characters. I was utterly captivated by the Count. I felt sorry for him, worried for him, even teared up in the end. I kept thinking of the word "charming" as I read, but that seems to somehow discount how smart the writing is, how much Towles gives readers to consider. Mostly, I was struck by the heart of A Gentleman In Moscow.
"As a younger man, I used to feel the same way about my sister. Every year that passed, it seemed a little more of her had slipped away; and I began to fear that one day I would come to forget her altogether. But the truth is: No matter how much time passes, those we have loved never slip away from us entirely."