House Arrest

A Gentleman in Moscow

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Living one’s entire life in a posh hotel sounds like the ultimate dream—think of the precocious children’s book character, Eloise, who ran rampant at the Plaza in New York, or Coco Chanel at Hôtel Ritz Paris in the 1930s. 

But what if you weren’t there by choice, rather as an extended house arrest? Such is the case for Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a genteel aristocrat who is spared from a Bolshevik firing squad but forced to live out his days in the attic at the Hotel Metropol, adjacent to the Bolshoi Ballet and across from the Kremlin. 

In Amor Towles’ second book, A Gentleman in Moscow, Rostov’s decline is sudden, from carefree bon vivant one day to attic prisoner the next. His crimes: a 1913 poem from his college days, and his unrepentant affiliation with the upper class.

Now that the Revolution has come to pass, Rostov has returned from Paris, blissfully unaware of his perilous status and the lingering distrust of aristocrats. He’s unceremoniously removed from his well-appointed suites to a tiny servant’s room at the top of the hotel. The message is clear: if he sets one foot outside the hotel doors, he will be shot.

But the Count is by nature calm and adaptable. He immediately focuses on maintaining his routine—coffee and a newspaper in the morning, some correspondence, lunch precisely at noon. A haircut once a week. Dinner in the main dining room each evening. He makes friends with the hotel regulars—the concierge, the seamstress, the chef. He becomes acquainted with Nina, a young girl who’s often left to her own devices, who teaches him the hotel’s many secrets thanks to a handy passkey. 

Over time, the Count takes on duties at the Metropol’s lavish restaurant. His knowledge of social status and etiquette make him invaluable in establishing the nightly seating arrangements. He can gracefully recommend a bottle of wine to even the most boorish comrade and artfully ensures that Communist Party leaders are seated according to rank.

But while the Count’s days fill in with friendships and work, he cannot help but notice the profound changes that are transforming his beloved city.

This novel is as elegant and genteel as the Count himself. Each carefully chosen word strikes just the right note, effortlessly. A scene in which the maître d’ ruefully laments the desecration of the hotel’s noteworthy wine collection by party zealots is particularly memorable, as is another where the Count and his confidantes pilfer ingredients to make bouillabaisse. 

But despite this novel’s utter charm, this is not an inconsequential period piece.  Instead, it is a rich and colorful character study of a man and a city during a tumultuous and transformative time.

Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System.

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