In June 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to permanent exile in Moscow’s grand hotel, the Metropol. Russian authorities inform Rostov that if he sets so much as one foot outside the hotel, he will be shot. A suspected enemy of the Russian Revolution, the Count’s life is spared because of a poem he wrote as a young man that established him as a pre-revolutionary hero. Narrowly avoiding death, the Count finds his life’s circumstances diminished and altered forever.
Consigned to a cramped room in the Metropol, Rostov considers his suddenly bleak circumstances. He notes that “...imagining what might happen if one’s cirucmstances were different was the only sure route to madness.” Rostov sets a routine for himself and attempts to keep himself occupied.
For the next 32 years Amor Towles unwinds a clever, leisurely, funny and poignant accounting of the Count’s life and relationships as an exile in the Metropol. Rostov is a fabulous creation—a charming, philosophical leisure-class gentleman who lacks purpose but enjoys the company of his fellow man. To pass the time he befriends waiters, management, patrons, and barbers. But it is his friendship with precocious 9-year-old Nina Kulikova that will eventually shape his life more than any other. Their games and conversations steal the show in the first half of the novel and setup the second half.
Towles breathes life into all his characters—such as Rostov’s childhood friend Mischka (who plays a key role in Rostov’s life) and the beautiful actress and frequent Metropol guest Anna Urbanova. The discreet Count maintains distinct relationships with each of his friends. In the latter half of the novel, his tendency to silo his relationships is challenged. Rostov, to his chagrin, is called to grow in new ways.
Towles challenges himself with an intricate and challenging structure to his novel, that gives him ample room to exercise his creative impulses. The novel bristles with invention. Rostov gets himself involved in a number of subplots. By the end of the novel, those subplots become the threads that tie together the novel’s concluding chapters.
Towles writes with precision, carefully constructing sentences that entertain and reveal. Towles delves into philosophy, psychology, Russian history, and the nature of friendship on his 32 year tour of a life in exile. The Metropol feels alive, full of secret rooms, master keys, hidden compartments, famous (and infamous) guests, servant shortcuts and mysterious liaisons.
“A Gentleman in Moscow” is my favorite novel as of late and deserves a wide readership. Towles delivers a sly, multilayered tale that invites itself to be read again.