By the end of this novel, I admired the amount of information packed into this title.
First, it places us in Moscow, a place somewhat mysterious to most of us, and immerses us in layers of Russian history from the end of the Czarist days, through the revolution, through the tenures of Lenin and Stalin, and into the infighting over the next period of leadership. Towles recreates the period effectively through details of furniture, books, menus, and meetings.
Second, the title draws our focus onto the gentleman, Count Alexander Rostov. We grow to admire how he uses the more admirable traits of the old aristocracy to adapt to his lengthy house arrest in the fading glamor of the Hotel Metropol, which is richly developed as a setting. We come to know its layout, décor, and personalities. Rostov maintains possessions and habits when they conform to his higher goals; he avoids letting ideology prevent him from cultivating friendships among many levels of the hotel’s staff and guests. His “gentleman’s” traits allow him to act as a mentor to two remarkable young girls. Without his established character, some of these relationships might seem improbable. But though these relationships, he seems remarkably to be engaged in society though physically limited to the hotel.
Of course there is action in the novel, but its languid pacing echoes the decades of Rostov’s arrest and suits his expansive and reflective nature. He is allowed to express a philosophical digression from time to time. We always suspect the house arrest must come to an end, but that ending is brilliantly tight and pulls together a number of crumbs that have been left along the reader’s path – some carefully constructed by Rostov and others provided by opportunity but cleverly exploited. We are amazed how he contrives Sofia’s escape from Soviet Russia and his own escape from the Metropol, and we are left to speculate on his future. A surprising number of details are left for us to surmise, but I’d like to think that we are urged to emulate the gentleman and not ask too many unimportant questions and instead focus on the important ones. —Bill Smith