Do you have a favorite hotel? I’m talking about a legendary, grande-dame of a place that may or may not be showing its age but remains elegant, with discrete service, a five-star dining room and the requisite, legendary bar. The Ritz in Paris or the Plaza in New York may come to mind. In Chicago it would probably be the Palmer House or the Drake. In Moscow it is the Metropol Hotel.
According to its website, the Metropol was built in “1899-1907 in Art Nouveau style, with contributions from some of Russia’s greatest architects and artists of the day.” Its location between the Bolshoi Ballet and the Kremlin makes it ideal for travelers and as a setting for A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
This is my new favorite book.
It would be a great read at any time (and obviously it has been for many since it spent 20 weeks on the New York Times best seller list since its release in 2016). But now, with Russia dominating our headlines, it seems almost too perfect. Do not, however, expect A Gentleman in Moscow to bear any resemblance to current events. Rather this is a tale from inside Russia in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, it’s a novel set almost entirely inside the Metropol Hotel.
Briefly, the novel tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat arrested by the Bolsheviks in 1922, but saved from execution because as a student he had written an influential revolutionary poem. Instead of the Gulag, he is sentenced to permanent house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. The Count had been living in a posh suite in the Metropol, where he had installed a variety of cherished family heirlooms and established a comfortable routine. However, under house arrest, he is forced to move what he can into a garret room in the Metropol’s attic and go from there.
The Count, being the Count, adapts.
That’s the charm and the challenge of the story. I must admit that I knew the premise of the book before I started reading, and I was intrigued about how Towles would handle the limitations of the hotel. Not to worry. The count’s former worldly circle is replaced by a new one within the Metropole: the cook, maitre’d, seamstress, bartender, and even an orphan for whom he assumes a paternal role. Towles deftly introduces hotel guests to bring the world to the Metropole and the Count, whose diplomatic skills and knowledge of history, literature, music, art, food and drink eventually make him a valuable mentor to high-ranking party members, netting a whole new range of relationships.
And then there are the dramas that play out. This is, after all, post-WWI and revolutionary Russia. There is the depression, the party’s struggles, WWII, Stalin’s death, the Cold War. The book spans nearly four decades, giving the count plenty of time to adapt while never losing his dignity or his sense of right and wrong.
Although the focus is on the Count, it’s impossible to overlook the challenges the other characters experience. The cook isn’t just losing access to ingredients in a time of shortages, he’s losing access to the tools of his trade, to his artistic expression. When the hotel manager — “the party’s” representative in the hotel — inserts himself into the daily restaurant meeting, the Count and his cohorts lose their autonomy. The losses may be incremental, but they mount. Life in Moscow is not easy, but these characters soldier on, assuring their guests the Metropol’s traditional service and style, and assuring themselves of their values and traditions.
This is much more than a survival story, it’s about thriving in the midst of adversity, never losing one’s “center” (and in fact, having a moral center). And this is the part that brings me to current headlines. Without sounding too political, what does it mean today to have a moral center? What does it mean to be an American in 2017? I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
This book would be a great read at any time, but right now, I think it’s perfect.
Bonus! Saving — and celebrating — a bit of every book
My daughter is an avid reader. (Hence her blog, What Maggie Read). We talk books a lot: what we’re reading, why, what’s next on our list, what our respective book groups thought about recent reads, and on and on (as my husband would say). One recurring topic of this conversation is documenting what we have read.
Maggie keeps a reading journal. (I’d like to be that disciplined, but I’m not.) She recently told me about a friend who keeps a kind of “annotated” list of books. As Adele finishes a book, she adds the title and the first sentence of the book. Cool, huh? We both think this is a great way to keep a record of what you have read. (Thanks, Adele.)
Do you track what you have read in a journal or a list or just by looking at your bookshelves? I would love to hear from you.
Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!