When, in 1922, the thirty-year old Count (Alexander Rostov) is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. An indomitable man of erudition and wit, Rostov 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, the Count's reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships with the hotel's other denizens, including a willful actress, a shrewd Kremlinite, a gregarious American, and a temperamental chef. But when fate suddenly puts the life of a young girl in his hands, he must draw on all his ingenuity to protect the future she so deserves.
First of all, I really like the fact that the book takes place in Moscow, shortly after the revolution. It's always fun to get a feel for a different time AND a different country.
Secondly, the book has a whole bunch of memorable characters. I would even use the word indelible. In fact, I can honestly say that Alexander Rostov is one of the most memorable literary figures that I have ever come across. I daresay (really?) that I will remember him long after I have forgotten most of the other "memorable literary figures" I have come across.
Thirdly, and you know this doesn't happen often, I got a takeaway from this book. It's interesting that those can happen from all different genres. I mean, who would expect that it could come from an erotic romance (I only read that one because it was written by a local author - I swear!), a regular(?) romance, and now a work of literary fiction? Here it is:
No doubt there have been moments when your life has taken a bit of a leap forward; and no doubt you look back upon those moments with self-assurance and pride. But was there really no third party deserving of even a modicum of credit? Some mentor, family friend, or schoolmate who gave timely advice, made an introduction, or put in a complimentary word? How true is that, people?
Fourthly, there are just a bunch more passages that absolutely struck me as genius. But I just can't take up any more of your reading time to quote them...or can I? Okay, one more:
Surely, the span of time between the placing of an order and the arrival of appetizers is one of the most perilous in all human interaction. What young lovers have not found themselves at this juncture in a silence so sudden, so seemingly insurmountable that it threatens to cast doubt upon their chemistry as a couple? What husband and wife have not found themselves suddenly unnerved by the fear that they might not ever have something urgent, impassioned, or surprising to say to each other again? So it is with good reason that most of us meet this dangerous interstice with a sense of foreboding.
That's really it...except for this one: The fourth-floor hallway was empty and still. Behind the closed doors slept the practical and predictable, the cautious and comfortable.
Fifthly, I had my usual assortment of cultural references and random mind wanderings:
1. Towles uses the word expunged. I couldn't help but think of the Steve Martin/Queen Latifah movie, Bringing Down The House. The movie wasn't very good, but there is a scene where Martin uses the word in a very distinctive and emphatic way.
2. Towles says "In short, Fatima knew a flower's fragrance, color, and purpose better than a bee." Of course, this made me think of The Language of Flowers, one of my top 12 all-time.
3. The Count and his American diplomat friend are talking about Socrates. So, don't ask me why, I thought of the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Do you remember that one of the characters pronounces Socrates name like So-crates (with a long a)? I thought of that and just cracked up.
That's it. I mean, there's more. But I'm not doing Part 3. If you want something literary, but that also has memorable characters, an exotic locale, and a very good story, then A Gentleman of Moscow is for you.