How does one go about having a successful, purposeful life? How does one do it if possessions and space have been reduced, as well as freedom of movement beyond confinement in a large, world-class hotel denied? Those are the underlying questions of the latest book by Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow. The gentleman is Count Alexander Rostov, the hotel, the Metropol, located near the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.
In the early 1920s, Rostov is sentenced to live out his life in the hotel, not in his luxurious suite, but in a tiny room with a pitifully small window. His crime - being of the aristocracy and the author of a controversial poem in the early 1900s. While cutting-edge in political thought at the time, post-Revolution authorities doubt Rostov's true intentions and dedication. Rather than a firing squad or Gulag, Rostov is shown leniency, allowing him to live with the threat that should he ever leave the Metropol he would be shot.
On this set of circumstances the rest of the story evolves, following the life Rostov creates for himself within the hotel for over thirty years. The Count and staff of the hotel are Damon Runyon-type characters with charm and unique quirks. The Count lives his life with order, resolve and positive attitude as well as honor and devotion. The story has subtle humor, unexpected twists and some suspense.
One can easily become wrapped up in the cocoon of the Metropol while elements of the outside world insinuate themselves into and touch that life. Criticism could and has been made that the reader needs to suspend reality from the beginning of the novel. Knowledge of the years from the Bolsheviks, through Lenin and then Stalin and into 1950s Soviet Union make Rostov's sentence incredible. As an aristocrat he would have been shot. His poem is a flimsy protection that could not have survived thirty years without re-evaluation by those in power. Towles draws in elements of political dangers for some characters. However, the full horror of Stalin's rule, as well as the devastation of WWII are not in the forefront. The seismic needle of events in Russian history of this period seems barely to move in the more metronomic life of Count Rostov.
Nevertheless, the story is charming, entertaining and philosophic as we see Rostov's life evolve and answer the questions asked at the beginning of this review. I think this was the author's intent, rather than write a gripping, sweeping narrative of the glories and tragedies of Mother Russia. Instead, Towles is paying attention to what really matters in life, no matter when, where or under what circumstances.
I read the advanced readers' copy after the book was published on September 6, 2016. A copy is available at Galesburg Public Library.