This book has been on my TBR since it’s publication in 2016. Years ago, definitely before I started officially blogging my reviews, I had read a previous novel of Towles’, Rules of Civility. I really enjoyed it. I remember thinking it was a great period piece, though I don’t remember a lot of the details, but nothing that completely inspired me to want to, for sure, pick up another book by him. However, when I saw the title/synopsis of this one, I knew I had to read it. For some reason I have always been particularly interested in Russia and Russian history. I have no real reason for why, other than falling in love with the animated movie Anastasia as a child. Actually, I still love the movie. I still have all the songs (and most of the rest of the dialogue) memorized and I quote it at least once a week – I will literally fight anyone who says anything bad about it. In fact, I JUST GOT TICKETS TO THE LIVE MUSICAL PRODUCTION WHEN IT TOURS THROUGH MY AREA NEXT YEAR. (Spoiler alert: I am SO excited.) In any case, coming from an author with a proven ability to write great period pieces, and with such an intriguing plot: a man under house arrest in the capital of Russia watching the country pass him by during some of its most turbulent years in recent history? Sign. Me. Up. But then, as things go, I procrastinated starting it…until this year, when, determined to finally read it, I added it to my Beat the Backlist challenge. And check me out – finished in the nick of time!
“If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”
I already a little gave a baby plot synopsis above (whoops), but I’ll give one with a little more detail before starting into my feels. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced, by a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922, to live out the rest of his life under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel, right across the street from the Kremlin. A previous member of high society, rubbing elbows with princes and princesses, fighting in duels, and summering at his family’s estate in Nizhny Novgorod, the Count’s world is reduced to a single building. But from his room in the attic, the Count refuses to let his spirit be broken, and his experiences within the hotel, drama-filled (both within the hotel and in the greater Russian political scope) and emotionally exploratory, unfold with all the interest and fulfillment of any other well-lived life.
Let me start by saying that, for a second time, Towles has created a phenomenal period feel. His style of writing sets a tone and atmosphere that are perfect for a proper gentleman living in a fancy, but aging, hotel. I don’t think I could have said there was a perfect style for that type of situation prior to reading this. But after finishing…this is it. There is just a little bit of pretension underlying the Count’s actions and interactions, but in a way that is incredibly endearing, instead of off-putting. It’s definitely the rose-tinted glasses version of the men, and decorum, of the time period. However, choosing to embrace that, in the spirit of the story, was totally worth it. Other things about the writing that I liked included the variety of references to literature and literary figures, placed liberally throughout the novel. It made my nerdy little heart happy. I also enjoyed the way two or three references were listed at a time, to give the reader a frame of reference for a given situation or feeling. It was a device used repeatedly, and to great effect.
The meditative focus on food and drink from the very beginning was something that grew on me. It definitely began with more than a little self-importance on the part of the Count, it seemed to me. But when one comes to see the role food/drink play later, as the Count becomes more involved in the service side of the hotel’s functions and becomes part of a vital group of three keeping the hotel’s restaurant services running at the highest standards, it becomes a much more charming focus. In addition, his focus on the ingredients works as a wonderful way to allow the Count space to muse, to jump into reminisces and give the reader insight to his thoughts and the past. Since we all know and accept food as a common vehicle of culture and memory, and that’s essentially what this story is, it works nicely. There’s also, if you are into this, a good amount of philosophy in relation to Russian culture and politics, addressed seriously and with snark, as befits the situation and in great compliment.
The hotel as a device is fascinating. There was every chance that this story could get really slow, considering the setting does not, cannot, change. But with a hotel, there is a rotating cast of characters available (in addition to the steadiness of the staff) for the Count to create connections with. And with a hotel across from the Kremlin, there are many opportunities, with state meetings and dinners, to give direct insight to Party leadership and politics. The personal and political intrigue this allows for definitely makes this, while not necessarily fast-paced, a story that keeps you on your toes waiting for the next development. And Towles does a great job giving tension to both types of intrigue in equal measure. It’s a sort of a perfectly gentlemanly tale of scheming and maneuvering – like James Bond but without the fast cars/ladies/weapons.
The other highlight of this story is, as might be expected, the characters themselves. By the end, they felt so incredibly real to me. I could swear that Count Rostov was a real person…like I could Google him and he’d be a legitimate historical personage. His close friends and hotel staff, like Chef Zhukovsky, Maitre’de Duras, and Marina the seamstress, are all full and quirky and become so important to the Count, in a way they never would have been in his prior life. And the other hotel guests, like the actress Anna Urbanova, the young Nina, and (later and most importantly) Sofia, show the Count a depth of emotional connection that he never had before and, again, we can assume he would never have found in his prior lifestyle. It’s completely endearing and the Count’s development with them each is an interpersonal relationship journey that I was totally bought into (again of course, especially with Sofia). It’s just so, so sweet. And to cap it all off, I though the open-ended finale, one full of the exact right amount of nostalgia and promise for the future, was exactly the ending this story deserved.
For a book this long (and it is long), I was very happy with the time I spent with it. I actually listened to the audiobook, which I think was ideal. The narrator had a great voice for the ambiance and pulled me right into the story. I could see there being a chance of getting stalled out in the middle, if I read it the traditional way – there were definitely some parts and details that could have been seen as extraneous to the environment, the period, and the plot – but listening to it helped me move through it all smoothly. And, overall, this expansive, rambling, contemplative, sweeping tale kept me completely entranced. It’s the perfect book for a “cozy into the blankets with a hot beverage and sink into another time/place” cold weather read.