Author Amor Towles visited Moscow in 1998. At that point, the Metropol Hotel was nearly celebrating its 100th anniversary. Opening in 1905, it joined the ranks of other leading grand hotels of its era like the Waldorf Astoria in New York, Claridge’s in London, and the Ritz in Paris. All of these hotel siblings shared similar characteristics for luxury and service. You could travel from one to the other and feel at home.
The Metropol was the first hotel in Moscow to have hot water and telephones in the rooms, international cuisine in the restaurants, and an American bar off the lobby. Stomping grounds for the internationally rich and famous and the elite of the city, the Metropol was at the heart of Moscow, situated on Theatre Square and across from the Kremlin.
Opulent, lavish, and with an otherworldly ambiance—but what if you couldn’t leave? What if you faced eminent elimination if you left the hotel’s inner sanctum?
It’s 1922 and Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian nobleman, is sentenced to lifetime imprisonment in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. It’s five years after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. What saves him from being sent to Siberia or immediate execution is a poem he wrote years before being judged to have sympathetic leanings to the Bolshevik cause.
Rostov was used to the Metropol. He occupied a series of rooms as a count accustomed to life’s finer pleasures. But the house arrest moves him to a small room in a sixth-floor belfry that once housed servants. A tall man, he regularly bumps his head when attempting to stand in certain parts of his meager quarters, and he no longer has grand views from the room’s windows.
Despite what appears to be claustrophobic environs, Rostov makes the most of his situation, approaching each day with optimism and resolving to see the best in everyone.
Spanning more than three decades from 1922 to 1954, the count’s stay is enriched by the myriad of personalities who ensure that the hotel runs smoothly, and some quintessential life-changing characters who come through the main doors and become an integral part of his existence.
An aristocrat at heart, Rostov brilliantly turns conversations into erudite discussions by offering his wit, sense of humor, and indomitable spirit to all those he meets. While his physical circumstances have been greatly reduced, his emotional world grows by leaps and bounds as his heart becomes increasingly intertwined with the hearts of those closest to him, several of whom he cares very deeply about.
The Metropol is like a character in itself. As the hotel seems to magically open to him with its labyrinth of layers, passages, and doorways, Rostov is caught in its many twists and turns, discovering daily new perspectives on leading a meaningful and purposeful life.
Towles does a brilliant job structuring the novel by interspersing footnotes that speak to the historical era. These give the reader a sense of the tumultuous events happening outside the hotel’s world.
The story unfolds beautifully as the main protagonists bloom and grow against harsh realities that threaten to undo them.
The rich trappings of the hotel, the thick carpets, the artwork, all mirror the enchanting tapestry of this tale: knotty and messy on one side but brilliantly woven on the other.
The Metropol hums with intrigue whether we find Rostov in the Shalyapin bar, dining in the Boyarsky restaurant, peering over a balcony, sharing culinary insights with the irascible chef Emile in the kitchen, or listening to Sofia play Chopin.
Rostov’s genteel nature is sure to win readers over with his effervescent charm, elegance, sensitivity, and (you’ll be surprised) his sleuthing talents. Little goes unnoticed when it matters the most. He is in a class all to himself, predicated on strength of character, moral discipline, and a resilient spirit that far exceeds his aristocratic upbringing.
And then there is the actress Anna Urbanova, a willowy femme fatale. Does she lead to the count’s undoing?
Or perhaps the party officer Osip Glebnikov with his requests to learn more about French and English cultures. They enjoy discussing books and watching American films, but what part will their longstanding friendship play?
The American, Richard Vanderwhile, shares a similar upbringing to Rostov’s. He eventually works for the State Department and visits the count regularly. He tells him about Stalin’s poor health and impending death, and what that will mean for the future of Russia and America.
The characters are so poignant and powerful that you may find yourself Googling to see if they are based on actual people. While the backdrop for the story is real, Towles’s characters are fictional. Many of them are also particularly endearing and will stay in your memory bank.
There is so much to love about this novel. It’s tantalizing, nuanced, elegantly crafted, nostalgic, hopeful, and with an ending that will leave you breathless and alive.
Step into the Metropol Hotel with Rostov as your gentleman guide and you will be mesmerized.
‘A Gentleman in Moscow’
By Amor Towles
Viking Penguin, Sept. 6, 2016
Hardcover: 462 pages