In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. 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. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.
I’m super late to the party on this one, but when am I not?
I have seen this book plenty of times over the years, but it wasn’t until a family member loaned it to me that I thought of giving it a go and…I’m glad I did.
From page one, I could tell the main character of Count Alexander Rostov was someone I would get along with. He’s a funny, smart, entertaining character whose world is being darkened by a bleak authoritarian regime; trapped in a gilded cage where any moment he could be plucked and cooked over the proverbial fire.
I’m stretching the bird metaphor a bit, but bear with me.
While Rostov’s circumstances are unique in the literal sense, there is something heartbreakingly universal about them as well. While most of us won’t find ourselves under house arrest at the behest of a tyrannical government-
—the helplessness Rostov feels as he watches a country he loves slowly turn its back on the very things that helped form its cultural identity is something a lot of people over thirty can relate to. Maybe things aren’t changing as dramatically for us as they are for him in the novel, but as you get older, the world becomes a lot less recognizable.
Back in my day, we weren’t making stupid TikTok videos and setting up OnlyFans accounts. We were making stupid Youtube videos and planking.
And we were damn proud of it too.
Moving on, when it comes to the main character, the book is a hit with me.
I will say, however, if you are looking for a book that’s big on plot, you may wish to look elsewhere. I personally prefer books with more of an emphasis on character so the fact that this novel is almost entirely character-driven didn’t bother me in the slightest. But if you are someone who prefers a lot of action, you might not get as much out of it.
Also, as much as I enjoy Towles writing style, there are a lot of moments where the writer waxes poetic a bit too much. Normally the philosophical insights are intriguing and thought-provoking, but their inclusion becomes a bit much over the course of the novel. This could be because we’re following Rostov as he ages and the elderly are more prone to pontificating about life than the young. Or at least that’s been my experience.
Speaking of philosophy, I’m of two minds when it comes to how the writer handled the topic of the Bolsheviks. On the one hand, I’m impressed that he was able to write them in such a neutral way, granted the circumstances behind the main characters banishment. On the other, I don’t think the reader can truly appreciate just how horrible Soviet Russia actually was from this novel.
Of course there is the passage where Towles calls out the Bolshevik’s hypocrisy (confiscating items of value from the higher classes only to appropriate them for themselves), and he mentions of course the multiple arrests and executions by those who got out of line. But that’s just the tip of the Russian iceberg.
In addition to creating such a state of paranoia it was virtually impossible to have any sort of meaningful relationship with anyone, they starved millions of people to death.
If you want to truly see how awful Soviet Russia was, I recommend reading Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. It’s a grim thriller that takes a deep dive into the culture of Stalin’s Russia.
That being said, while it wasn’t perfect in every regard, A Gentleman in Moscow was a heartwarming, funny, and interesting read with great characters.