A Gentleman in Moscow
This novel is Towles`second, his first being „Rules of Civility“ (2011). The author worked as an investment professional for 20 years before he took up a career as a writer. Both novels have been very successful, if the book cover is to be believed.
The cover photo shows the plot in a nutshell, because the story is about a Russian „former Person“ whose estate was destroyed and he was sentenced to lifelong house arrest in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow after the communist takeover. One of the weakest aspects of the novel is exactly this fact. It is hardly believable that the communists should not simply execute Count Rostov in 1922, being a prototype of the arch enemy.
So at the beginning I had difficulty adjusting to the pleasant narrative about this „Gentleman“ who makes a small room in the attic of the hotel his permanent home. He can take some of his furniture up there and chooses his family heirloom, a secretaire, in whose legs he has stored gold nuggets, that conveniently offer him a life of leisure in the hotel. All around him, people are persecuted, executed, suffer expulsion, famine, torture and death. But he lives in this cultivated island of a first class hotel in the midst of it all.
But gradually you cannot but grow fond of this old-fashioned gentleman, who is kind and gentle to all the hotel guests and staff. He befriends a little girl, daughter of a party apparatschik, and together they explore all the hidden places in the hotel. The years pass, the girl also becomes a party official, marries one and moves into the country to educate the masses. Some other years later, her daughter, another young girl, is brought to Count Rostov for safe-keeping, the father having been deported, and her mother following him into exile.
Count Rostov by now is head waiter in the hotel restaurant, with well-developed connections even to important party members. And so another little girl grows up under Rostov´s protection. But the situation in the hotel has become difficult, with a stubborn party member controlling everything. As this person doesn´t know anything about wine selections, he has all the labels of the bottles in the cellar removed, and there is now only a choice between red and white. This is Towles´ way of describing terror. Stalin´s killing of more than twenty million people is only mentioned in a footnote.