Even when he's on trial, Count Alexander Rostov is charming.
The first pages of Amor Towles' winning new novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, are the transcript of the Count's trial in 1922 "before the Emergency Committee of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs." Asked why, after four years of self-imposed exile in Paris, he returned to Russia in 1918, the Count says, "I missed the climate."
He gets a laugh from the jury, but he's convicted anyway, basically of the crime of being an unrepentant aristocrat — which in those times ordinarily led to being "put against the wall." But the Count is lucky: Declared a "former person," he is sentenced to permanent house arrest.
The idyllic Rostov family estate was lost to the revolution years before (along with most of the Rostov family), but the Count has been living comfortably enough in his luxury suite on the fourth floor of the Hotel Metropol, overlooking Theatre Square and the Bolshoi, where he can watch the ballerinas come and go.
Like the Plaza in New York and the Ritz in Paris, the Metropol (which is still in operation) is one of the grand hotels built around the turn of the 20th century to cater to well-off, sophisticated clientele. It was seized by the Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, but, as trade and diplomacy with other nations returned to importance, by 1922 it had been restored to its former glory.
So the Count, a dashing, 30-year-old man about town, is not all that disturbed about house arrest. Until, that is, he discovers he has been locked out of that posh suite. Most of his belongings are in a basement storage unit, and the rest are crammed into a 100-square-foot bedroom on the top floor, in what was originally the hotel's servants' quarters. No view of the ballerinas here.
Hence begins the Count's new life — one that will play out entirely within the Metropol's walls for more than 30 years.
If this sounds like the beginning of a Russian tragedy, think again. The Count's story is that of a survivor, a man whose wit, worldliness, intuitive understanding of people and generosity of heart will help him find a whole world of experience in the Metropol, rather than a prison.
This is the second novel by Towles, who will be a featured author at the Times Festival of Reading. His bestselling debut, Rules of Civility, differed in its protagonist and setting — a young working-class woman reinventing herself in New York City in the 1920s — but A Gentleman in Moscow shares its sleek, artful style, light touch and human insight.
From the start, Towles shows us the Count's philosophical and practical sides. Surveying the suite filled with his belongings for the last time, he "looked once more at what heirlooms remained and then expunged them from his heartache forever." He does, however, make a point of keeping his godfather's desk, each leg of which has a secret door to a "velvet-lined hollow ... stacked with pieces of gold."
Putting his life in order is a comfort, but people tend to upend that order. One is Nina, a sort of more serious-minded, Russian version of the Plaza Hotel's fictional occupant Eloise. Her mother dead, her father a man whose business involves travel, Nina is a free-range kid of about 9 who, to his surprise, knows far more about the Metropol's inner workings than the Count does. As they become fast friends, she shows him every hidden passageway and takes him along to eavesdrop on government meetings in the dining rooms.
The Metropol's two restaurants, the bustling Piazza and the elegant Boyarsky, and its convivial bar, the Shalyapin, are among the Count's favorite haunts, not just because of what they serve but because of the human drama and comedy for which they provide stages. As time passes, the Count will go to work as the headwaiter at the Boyarsky, and its chef and maitre d' will become two of his closest friends. And one frequent hotel guest, a certain willowy movie star, will be more than that.
Nina will move away, leaving her part-time father the Count bereft, but eventually he will become a foster father in earnest to her little daughter, Sofia. The novel, for most of its course a gentle comedy with moments of poignancy, will in its latter chapters turn into a thriller as the lives of Sofia, the Count and others come to the brink of momentous change.
The farthest thing from claustrophobic, A Gentleman in Moscow gives the reader a world of charm that's hard to resist. "Now," Towles writes near the book's end, "he was to bid adieu to a room that was one hundred foot square. It was, without question, the smallest room that he had occupied in his life; yet somehow, within those four walls the world had come and gone."
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.