I picked this up because it was on everyone’s to-read lists. I thought it was probably about Cold War spies, maybe something along the lines of John le Carré.
This is not a book about Cold War spies.
This is the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who has been sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropole, where he is in fact already a resident, for writing a poem. (It could have been worse–it could have been a bullet to the head.) Rostov is a man of manners and charm–old school, if you will–and determines that if the world has been cut off to him, he will find the world in the hotel. And, with a 9 year old accomplice, he does, and it is just delightful.
The NYTimes review nails it:
The book is narrated not by Rostov but by a hovering third person, sporting what seems to be a permanently arched eyebrow, who occasionally lapses into aristocratic fussiness. Wonder abounds. Secret panels open. A former juggler reaches out to grab a falling torte just in time. One-eyed cats look away at crucial moments. Although its style is never overbearing, the Metropol is imbued with a sense of idiosyncratic wonder. Listen closely and you might hear a Wes Anderson soundtrack playing down the hall. We’re not in the Grand Budapest, but more than once I imagined F. Murray Abraham narrating a long, panning shot.
Towles gives enough glimpses into the world outside the Metropole during Rostov’s decades-long imprisonment – wars and diplomats and famines and pain – that the story, delightful as it is, never seems too fantastical, although it is fantastical: Bolshevik and Soviet Russia are literally right outside the door. This is not a book about Russian history, and I, for one, was willing to suspend my disbelief immediately. (Would a Former Person really be able to give English lessons to a Bolshevik leader? Would they really have put him under house arrest instead of shooting him, as they did so many others? Are his stories of pre-revolution Russian aristocratic diversions plausible? Probably not, and I don’t care one whit.)
I don’t think it’s escapism, though; rather, it is a symphony to optimism and the human spirit. How many, in Rostov’s place, would have instead thrown themselves off the roof? Or wiled away their years in mere repetition of some sort of mundane Sisyphean routine? Instead, Rostov nurtures friends, family, and love of all sorts, always prepared to learn and to teach, always ready with a bon mot. Like gathering around the Christmas tree when a storm howls outside, Rostov’s story is one of deep, warm love and friendship despite the realities of a cold, cruel world. And we can all use a little of that.
Life is every bit as devious as Death. It too can wear a hooded coat. It too can slip into town, lurk in an alley, or wait in the back of a tavern.