This book was everywhere last year. Everyone I knew was reading it for book clubs and raving about it. One of my book clubs finally chose it for our April pick, and I’m just finishing up (its long!).
The verdict in my book club:
Most did not finish.
One finished and hated it.
One finished and put it in her top 5 books of all time.
And what about me?
I was just annoyed.
This is a nice story for the most part. Amor Towles clearly did his research about Russia in the early 20th century. And the writing is lovely. But really, all I wanted was to find the author and grab him by the lapels and shake him a bit. I found the whole thing totally pretentious and heavy handed and it was most definitely not for me.
At the beginning of the story, a young man named Count Alexander Rostov, is found guilty of writing an anti-bolshevik poem and is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. He is moved from his elegant suite up to the servant’s quarters on the highest floor. He can barely fit half of his lovely furniture taken from his grandmother’s extravagant country estate, and can’t fathom how he could possibly live that way.
But, of course, he does figure out how to live that way, as the bulk of the story takes place within the walls of the Metropol Hotel over the course of 30 years. Count Rostov adapts to life in the hotel and thrives there, making life-long friends who become his family. While life outside the hotel changes dramatically we move from the Russian Revolution to World War II and Stalin to Khrushchev and the Soviet Union, Count Rostov does the same thing more or less every single day.
He wakes up and does 15 squats (which over the years become 10 squats, and later 5). He drinks coffee and has a biscuit and fruit. He goes down to the lobby and reads the paper. He goes to the restaurant and has lunch. He gets a haircut. He dresses for dinner. He goes to the bar. He talks to anyone and everyone he comes in contact with, as he is extraordinarily charming and knows how to control pretty much every social situation. He beds beautiful women and is amazingly suave all the time.
He ends up befriending a young girl named Nina who also lives in the hotel. They have lots of adventures exploring and spying on people. Nina grows up, but still checks in on the Count from time to time. Nina ends up giving the Count two gifts that change his life forever — one is a key that opens every room in the hotel, and the other…well, the other is a massive spoiler so I’ll keep it to myself. But it changes the way the Count lives every single aspect of his life and redirects his future.
The way that Towles describes the various stages of life in Russia is fascinating…the description of the architect who has nothing to do because everything being built in Moscow is prefab and identical…the scene in the wine cellar when Rostov sees that every single label has been removed from over 100,000 bottles of wonderful wine, because no wine should be better than another…those little insights were dramatically effective.
But for the most part, I found the flourishing descriptions of every little thing to be repetitive and annoying. By the time the book ended, I really didn’t care anymore, and just wanted it to be over. The Count is charming, but after so many instances of being told how charming he is, I started to find him stifling and obnoxious.
Apparently, this is going to be a movie or a miniseries (?) starring Kenneth Branagh. He’s perfect for the older version of the count. I’ll watch for him.