I fell in love with Count Alexander Rostov, the gentleman of The Gentleman in Moscow. As I read, I took copious notes—because so much of what he thought and said was worth remembering. Of course, Rostov is his author’s creation, so I suppose I also became slightly enamoured with Amor Towles as well. (Ironic that his name is Amor…) He has created a palette which brings alive early 20th century Russia and every page resonates with intimate and historical details that immerse you in another time and place.
The story begins in 1922 when a Bolshevik tribunal has just sentenced Count Rostov to spend the rest of his days in Hotel Metropol. His is guilty, of course, of being an aristocrat. Aristocrat by birth, maybe, but a humanist in character. We learn this on every page as we follow the meanderings of his mind and also the wanderings of his person through the many restaurants, rooms, and halls of the human zoo that is The Hotel Metropol.
This is a man with mind, body and soul in first gear. He simmers in the depths of Montaigne, Balzac, Dickens and Tolstoy. He revels about the grandeur of grinding coffee and relishes the memory of Latvian stew. “The onions thoroughly caramelized, the pork slowly braised and the apricots briefly stewed, the three ingredients came together in a sweet and smoky medley that simultaneously suggested the comfort of a snowed –in tavern and the jangle of a Gypsy tambourine.”
We only know Rostov as a prisoner. We are not given a lot of detail about his past life, but just enough to let us know that he was a popular bon vivant, who loved the Bolshoi, blinis with caviar, and of course the attention of many beautiful young women. But the most important influence in his life was his sister who seemed to have died precipitously. The circumstances of this event come back later. In the first few pages of life in the hotel, he meets a young girl by the name of Nina who lives there as well. She takes him on many imaginative adventures and shakes up his obsessive and pleasurable daily routines. When her parents disappear (perhaps gone to the Gulag) they leave a note imploring him to take care of her. Herein lies the plot—and a love of a different kind enables Count Rostov to ripen in the most beautiful of ways.
While reading this book, I often wondered why I was enjoying it so much. I believe now that what underpins every page is attention to detail. Many times I stopped and looked up this character or that incident and, indeed, they all resided in the information superhighway that we live in, almost exactly as Towles had painted them. Towles himself has said it takes about four years to write a book — one year on the outline, one on the initial writing, and two on revisions and rewrites. Quality of this calibre is definitely worth the wait!