The gentleman in Moscow is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. A former member of the landed aristocracy from the beautiful region of Nizhy Novgorod, famous for its apple trees, Rostov was a resident of the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922. He had been living in a luxury suite in the hotel and enjoying a life of culture and leisure. But then came the revolution.
The triumphant Bolsheviks set about ridding their new society of aristocrats. Rostov was called before a tribunal and was sentenced by them to a life under house arrest. But instead of continuing to live in his luxurious suite of rooms, those rooms, along with most of his furniture and other possessions, were taken from him and he was moved into a small 100 square foot room in the belfry of the hotel. This would be his home - and his prison - for the next thirty plus years.
In addition to being a man of culture, erudition, and wit, Rostov possessed an indomitable spirit and an ability to deal with reality without blinking. He took steps to make himself as comfortable as possible in his new surroundings and continued his daily routine at the hotel.
That daily routine included interactions with several of the staff members as well as other residents. The staff members who became his fast friends and surrogate family included: Emile, the head chef of the restaurant; Andrey, the maitre d'; Marina, the hotel's seamstress; and Vasily, the concierge. This "family" became increasingly important in Rostov's life as events unfolded.
Rostov proves to be a charming man of hidden depths and his life changes drastically when he meets a nine-year-old resident of the hotel named Nina. Nina is an endlessly curious, adventurous, and precocious child, and the two become unlikely best friends. As Nina explores all the interesting nooks and crannies of the great hotel, Rostov becomes her companion and follower. Through their adventures together, a whole new world opens up for him.
Eventually, Nina's father moves her out of the hotel, but Rostov continues to find adventures. His new outlook on the world leads him to seek employment and he becomes the headwaiter in the restaurant at the hotel, a position for which his experience and knowledge suits him right down to the ground.
He settles into a comfortable routine with his friends from the hotel and occasional visits by friends from past life, but, of course, he is never able to leave the hotel.
Then one day, Nina comes back into his life. She is a grown woman, married, and with a child in tow. She relates an all-too-familiar tale of the new Bolshevik utopia. Her husband has been arrested and sent to Siberia. She plans to follow him and find a place to live there. But she cannot take her five-year-old daughter with her. She wants to leave Sofia with Rostov, saying that she has no one else she can turn to and she will return in a month or so after she finds a place to live and retrieve her daughter. How can Rostov refuse?
And so the count's life changes drastically once again. His next fifteen years are devoted to raising Sofia, who becomes his adopted daughter because her parents never return and are never heard from again.
The cast of characters in this engrossing novel are compelling, top to bottom. Not just the main characters but all the secondary supporting cast are thoroughly human, completely realized personalities. They are, for the most part, a humane and lovable lot, with only one real notable exception. But then every tale needs a bete noire.
The story really gets going once Sofia comes into Rostov's and his "family's" lives. It is amazing and yet thoroughly believable the adjustments that are made by these people to ensure that Sofia is properly cared for.
I admired the way that Towles seamlessly wove in bits of Russian literary history as well as the political history of the twentieth century, as the Bolsheviks tightened their grip on the reins of the country. Moreover, he was able to relate his tale with wit and an intentional lightness of spirit. We are never weighed down by tragic events. Although we are always made aware of what is happening outside the hotel, the focus is quite personal and individual, a testament to the undaunted human spirit.
Towles never loses sight of his end game and how the plot should be directed. As he brings the book to its very satisfying end, he manages to draw all of his important themes together: the gravitational pull exerted by one's home, parental duty, the pivotal role of friendship and romance in our lives.
I loved this book and the character of Count Rostov. From the first sentence to the last, I was completely captivated.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars