You guys. This book.
A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of Count Alexander Illyich Rostov, an aristocrat sentenced by the Bolsheviks to spend his life under house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow — just across the way from the Kremlin, in fact. There he spends the next thirty-two years, from 1922 to 1954. It’s a rich and delightful novel, and the ending was so perfectly bittersweet that it made me weep (thereby greatly alarming my husband, who had been peacefully sleeping beside me when I burst into tears). Here is the book trailer, which will perhaps give you a taste of it:
Despite the physical constraints of life inside the Metropol, Count Rostov’s life is enriched and enlivened in particular by his contact with three women: by Anna Urbanova, the glamorous silent film actress; by earnest and curious Nina, whom he first meets as a nine-year-old staying in the hotel with her governess; and most profoundly by Sofia, Nina’s five-year-old daughter, who is deposited into his care for “a month or two” halfway through the novel, when the Count is in his mid-forties. Nina is following her husband into Siberia; you can perhaps imagine how that ends, and so the Count finds himself thrust into unexpected fatherhood. There is also a largeish cast of supporting characters, including hotel staff, foreign diplomats and envoys, Soviet officials, friends from Rostov’s past, members of the KGB, and of course, hotel guests various and sundry.
What is most amazing to me about what Towles has done in this novel is that it feels so much like one of the classic Russian novels, albeit with a much more modern setting. This is despite the fact that Towles is American, born in Boston and currently residing in New York; he says on his website that “I am hardly a Russologist. I don’t speak the language, I didn’t study the history in school, and I have only been to the country a few times” (source). Now, I’m not a Russologist either, but I have read some of the Big Russian Novels and A Gentleman in Moscow has the same — what? Tone? Flavour? It’s hard to put my finger on it exactly, but this felt in a lot of ways much like reading Anna Karenina or something in that line. It’s just so very Russian.
If you’re looking for a novel in which to engross yourself, give A Gentleman in Moscow a try. It’s perfectly splendid.