Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov is placed under house arrest in a small room in the Metropol, a grand hotel across from the Kremlin in Moscow. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. ‘Exile at home’ is the worst kind of punishment because it’s impossible to leave and begin anew. He finds ways to pass the time, make himself useful, forge meaningful relationships, and yes, be a little subversive. He befriends a spirited young girl called Nina who joins him on adventures in the hotel and later on, also her daughter Sofia. The story unfolds beautifully and has a great deal of old world charm. Towles has an elegant way of creating a sophisticated ambience with his writing style, but it is also brimming with humour. The ending was perfect.
To be honest, I found parts of the book a tad slow, but then those sections would be followed by some exquisite prose that would take my breath away, and all would be forgiven. Though not difficult to follow, not everyone will have the patience for this book, but if you do, you will be richly rewarded. I actually did love it, but wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. It reminded me of the The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was also received as brilliant by some, and left others wondering what the fuss was about. I loved that one too. So it’s definitely a “if you like that, you’ll love this” situation. Here is a sample of the writing which also hints at the fascinating political undercurrents ever present in the novel.
“For years now, with a bit of smile, the Count had remarked that this or that was behind him–like his days of poetry or travel or romance. But in so doing, he had never really believed it. In his heart of hearts, he had imagined that, even if unattended to, these aspects of his life were lingering somewhere on the periphery, waiting to be recalled. But looking at the bottle in his hand, the Count was struck by the realization that, in fact, it was all behind him. Because the Bolsheviks, who were so intent upon recasting the future from a mold of their own making, would not rest until every last vestige of his Russia had been uprooted, shattered, or erased.”
Whether you decide to read the book or not, this trailer for it is worth a view: