A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is the most beautiful novel I have read in many years. It begins in 1922 , after the Communist Revolution, with the trial of Count Alexander Rostov. Normally at such a trial Count Rostov would have been sentenced to death, simply for having been a close friend of the Tsar. In addition, Count Rostov is a lazy “man of leisure” who has never worked a day in his life, and who occupies a luxurious suite at the Moscow Metropol Hotel. Not exactly the type of man the Communists admired.
However, in 1913 Count Rostov had written a beautiful poem praising the working class and the revolution. This poem saved the Count’s life. Instead of being condemned to death, Alexander Rostov is declared a “former person” who must live the rest of his life in the Metropol Hotel. He will be immediately executed if he ever steps foot outside. To make Rostov’s humiliation complete, he is moved from his grand suite into a tiny room on the top floor of the hotel.
A Gentleman in Moscow chronicles Count Rostov’s life in the hotel over many decades, as both he and Russia undergo changes. Rostov is not confined to his room, but has the run of the gigantic hotel, which is in the center of Moscow, and where all the power brokers of society meet.
It may sound like A Gentleman in Moscow would be limited in scope as it is confined to a single hotel. However, that is not at all the case. For although Rostov may not go out into the world, the World comes to Rostov.
Communist party leaders, ballerinas, actresses, mistresses, American spies and reporters all stay at the Metropol. As a former person, Rostov himself is almost invisible and unnoticed, and thus is in a perfect position to observe it all and see the changes in his beloved Russia.
Over the years Rostov himself changes as much as Russia. In a way, his sentence to the Metropol is the best thing that ever happened to him. For the first time in his life he must work, and takes a job as a waiter in the grand dining room. As a former Count he is excellent at this job due to his knowledge of fine wine and elegant dining.
Rostov becomes friends with Nina, the daughter of a Communist Party official who lives at the hotel. Nina is only 9 and bored and she and Rostov explore the hotel together. Through the child’s eyes, Rostov sees things he never knew existed. Nina has discovered all the secret passageways, rooms staircases and hidden doors in the grand hotel. Together Nina and Rostov spy on everything.
A Gentleman in Moscow works so well as novel, because Count Alexander Rostov is such a wonderful character. At first he seems sort of ridiculous, trying to maintain the attributes of a gentleman as the world collapses around him. Count Rostov is concerned with reading great works of literature and keeping his hair perfectly trimmed, while Stalin comes to power and the Secret Police control Moscow.
However, as A Gentleman in Moscow progresses, we see that there is more to Alexander Rostov than meets the eye. He is a good person who is genuinely concerned about the people around him. Rostov is much tougher than he appears and tries to help those in need in whatever small way he can. Maybe that is the real definition of being a gentleman.