One of the most charming, delightful, moving, and enjoyable books I have read in years! Highly recommended.
I’m not one to write a review for Amazon or Goodreads after I finish reading a book. Reader comments normally irritate me, as they tend to be nothing more than synopses of the story [I prefer reading the book’s jacket or back cover for those], or a complaint filed against Amazon for missing a scheduled delivery.
When it’s time for me to leave a review, I find so many readers have done so before me, that any word I should pen would be lost in the mix. Yet, every time I reach the last page of a book, my Kindle insists I add my views for the book, only so that it can display a hundred similar options and titles to purchase that would excite, or disappoint, in similar fashion.
Yesterday, I found myself breaking with habit. I wrote a simple and straight forward review for a book that left a lasting impression. After spending the last week cooped at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow with Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov learning about his thirty year house arrest inside one of Russia’s most notable hotels, I had an unfamiliar urge to share with someone the pleasures of reading a book. After giving the book a 5-star rating [something I seldom do], I dispatched a text message to a fellow reader: My friend: get this book, go to your room, shut the door, and enjoy. You’re welcome!
At first, one would think a 400 page story devoted to a life lived inside a hotel would not make for interesting reading, but once acquainted with Count Rostov and the cast of characters that inhabit the famed inn, one can’t help but fall in-love with a person of impeccable manners and keen sense of observation.
When the Count is found guilty of being an aristocrat and man of leisure by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, the grand hotel that sits across the street from the Kremlin. Count Rostov is forced to live in an attic room in the hotel while the tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold outside the hotel’s doors. And while this may seem like the beginning of a long, drawl Russian tragedy, under the expert pen of Amor Towles, it becomes a witty, funny, joyful romp across Moscow’s (and Russian) history instead.
Count Rostov is a charming a character as one can hope to find in literature. Dickens would have been proud to have known him. Mr. Towles breathes life into his main character, giving him ample wit to confer on a stranger, incident to move about, and history to cover. There is so much life taking place inside the walls of the Metropol that given the chance I would have enjoyed thirty more years with Count Rostov and the staff of the hotel.
Joining the Count in his adventures is Emil, the Metropol’s chef, a gruff but amiable man known for wielding a knife in order to make a point. I fell in-love with Anna Urbanova, the famous movie and stage actress, known to drop a dress to the sound of whoosh! I’d have a drink any day with Andrey, the Metropol’s maître d’hôtel with fingers so long and skilled, he could have been a concert pianist. And I will not soon forget Nina and Sofia, who give the Count plenty of reason to live and explore the hidden secrets of the Metropol.
The real hero in the story, however, is the narrator of the novel. With a keen eye for detail and language to charm even the most demanding members of the Politburo, the narrator’s commentary and sharp observations breathe life not just to Count Rostov’s character, but to everything that falls within sight of the Count.
On the virtues of choosing the right wine:
The Rioja? Now there was a wine that would clash with the stew as Achilles clashed with Hector. It would slay the dish with a blow to the head and drag it behind its chariot until it tested the fortitude of every man in Troy. Besides, it plainly cost three times what the young man could afford.
On the fine features of Anna Oblomov, the film and stage actress:
As the willow studied the Count, he noted that the arches over her eyebrows were very much like the marcato notation in music— that accent which instructs one to play a phrase a little more loudly. This, no doubt, accounted for the willow’s preference for issuing commands and the resulting huskiness of her voice.
On first impressions:
After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration— and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.
[H]e figured a cup of coffee would hit the spot. For what is more versatile? As at home in tin as it is in Limoges, coffee can energize the industrious at dawn, calm the reflective at noon, or raise the spirits of the beleaguered in the middle of the night. …
But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists— the aroma of freshly ground coffee. In that instant, darkness was separated from light, the waters from the lands, and the heavens from the earth. The trees bore fruit and the woods rustled with the movement of birds and beasts and all manner of creeping things.
On unrequited love:
Mishka would pine for Katerina the rest of his life! Never again would he walk Nevsky Prospekt, however they chose to rename it, without feeling an unbearable sense of loss. And that is just how it should be. That sense of loss is exactly what we must anticipate, prepare for, and cherish to the last of our days; for it is only our heartbreak that finally refutes all that is ephemeral in love.
On the proper use of an ellipsis…
Ever since the Bishop had been promoted, he had taken to adding an ellipsis at the end of every question. But what was one to infer from it . . . ? That this particular punctuation mark should be fended off . . . ? That an interrogative sentence should never end . . . ? That even though he is asking a question, he has no need of an answer because he has already formed an opinion . . . ?
On the written word:
Now, in all of Russia, there was no greater admirer of the written word than Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. In his time, he had seen a couplet of Pushkin’s sway a hesitant heart. He had watched as a single passage from Dostoevsky roused one man to action and another to indifference— in the very same hour. He certainly viewed it as providential that when Socrates held forth in the agora and Jesus on the Mount, someone in the audience had the presence of mind to set their words down for posterity.
For it is the role of the parent to express his concerns and then take three steps back. Not one, mind you, not two, but three. Or maybe four. (But by no means five.) Yes, a parent should share his hesitations and then take three or four steps back, so that the child can make a decision by herself— even when that decision may lead to disappointment.
There is so much to like in this novel: the well realized characters, the friendships forged and lost under challenging circumstances, the discovery of love in the unlikeliest of places, the humor found even when under duress. To write or say anything else about the book or the story would mean cheating the reader of finding out for themselves the many charms and surprises that abound in the novel. Mr. Towles’ story is rich in detail, events, and surprises. The book works like a Russian Matryoshka doll where one nested surprise leads to another, and where a carful reader who keeps track of all the pieces Mr. Towles juggles is richly rewarded in a heartbreaking, but perfect, ending.