Count Alexander Rostov fully expects to be sentenced to be shot by the revolutionary tribunal, but due to their admiration for a poem he had published years before the Count’s life is spared. Their generosity has limits, however. Rostov, a resident of the luxurious Metropol Hotel in Moscow, is ordered to remain within the hotel for life.
Arriving back at the hotel, the Count is informed that his former suite has been requisitioned by the State and he will have to make due with the abandoned servant’s quarters in the attic, a space of about one hundred square feet. He jams as much of his family heirlooms and all of his books in the tiny room and sets about trying to survive.
Towles has set himself quite the challenge. How do you make a compelling story with a character who can’t go anywhere? It helps that Rostov is an arresting personality. He is erudite and social with impeccable manners. He has an appreciation for the finer things in life: good food, good wine, and good friends.
Over the long years of his extended stay, Rostov becomes very close with many of the hotel’s staff, including the concierge, the maitre’d, the head chef, and the in-house seamstress. Friends from his previous life come to visit and give him a taste of the ways Russia continues to change, and he makes friends with many of the hotel’s recurring guests, including an American statesman, a famous actress, and a curious young girl who has a bigger impact on his life than anyone else. Since Towles can’t send his protagonist out into the world, he has the world come to him.
Though I was enormously fond of Towles’s first novel, Rules of Civility, it took me quite a while to warm up to this one. The set-up is a lot to accept for one thing. Towles also veers into condescension with his prose style, which I believe is intended to be whimsical but occasionally comes off as patronizing. There is also the odd, and seemingly meaningless, decision to title the chapters exclusively with words beginning with “A.”
All that said, eventually the Count’s story won me over as he made a wonderful life for himself despite all the constrictions placed upon him. It’s an uplifting tale about what’s really important in life.