It’s 1922. We are in Moscow’s most distinguished hotel and one of its permanent guests, the unrepentant aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, has just been sentenced to a life in exile inside the hotel ‘never to set foot outside of The Metropol again.’ So starts A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel that it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with, a true, yes I will say it, feel good story. It’s not going to change your life, but Amor Towels’ book (also author of Rules of Civility) will entertain and delight with wonderfully crafted characters and enviably elegant writing.
The 33 year-old Count is as charming, sophisticated and cultured as they come, a product of his class and Tsarist upbringing. As part of his exile, he’s forced to move from a grand suite to a broom cupboard sized room on the top floor, leaving behind most of his precious porcelain, paintings and furniture. But the proud and pragmatic Count takes it in stride, without complaint, reflecting only that ‘a man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them’.
The Count adjusts to his new existence by befriending a little girl, who will change his life, and the staff, particularly the kitchen and restaurant staff. A gourmand himself, he soon joins them as a invaluable advisor on etiquette, selecting fine wines and composing the perfect menu. After all, even the communists enjoyed a lavish dinner.
What makes this (rather long) book worth your while, apart from Towles’ perfectly pitched writing, is a roster of delightful characters, first of all the snobbish but human Count, the grumpy chef, Emile, whose mood improves during the course of the day only to hit zenith at dinner time and the sinister waiter – whose communist leanings help him up the career ladder -nicknamed the Bishop.
Tall and thin, with a narrow head and superior demeanour, he looked rather like a bishop that had been plucked from a chessboard.
Ironically, the Count turns out to be ‘the luckiest man in all of Russia’ for while house arrest might seem harsh, it is nothing compared to what goes on outside the walls of The Metropol.
Despite it’s grim context, A Gentleman in Moscow is a light, addictive and quite funny read. In essence a story about letting go of the past, making the best of it and knowing what is important in life. As Count Alexander put it:
‘I’ll tell you what is convenient,’ he said after a moment. ‘To sleep until noon and have someone bring you breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. […] To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka – and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.’
A Gentleman in Moscow is published by Hutchinson, 462 pages.