I heard a lot about this book before I read it: everybody loved it. So much so that my expectations were high. I didn’t realise what it was I was expecting until it didn’t happen. There is a point in most novels, usually between pages 50 and 100, sometimes earlier, sometimes in the first line, that you realise what kind of story you are reading, or about to read. I call it the 1st plot point. Here there didn’t seem to be one. By page 150 I had to make a decision: stop or reassess my expectations. I chose the latter.
The story is set in 1922 in Moscow where a minor aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov, is saved from death by an obscure poem he penned in his youth; a poem that the authorities deemed to contain revolutionary sentiments, but he is an unapologetic aristocrat and therefore a threat to the new society; so instead he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel. He had been living there in some comfort but was now relegated to an attic room the size of a cupboard. What follows is his colourful life over thirty years lived entirely inside the hotel. There is not a narrative arc which a plot point would foretell but rather a series of episodes, almost a series of interconnected short stories. However, narrative tension does surface in the last chapters that propels the story to a satisfying conclusion.
The language is ‘old fashioned’, which feels entirely appropriate, reflecting the formality and social mores of a well-educated man of some means in the early twentieth century and in a country of historical turmoil; but it is also light-hearted, almost whimsical at times, subtle humour is always just below the surface.
Turning about, he walked down the hall to the card room and quietly opened the door, assuming he would find four middle-aged ladies exchanging cookies and profanities over tricks of whist – as an attentive spirit held her breath her breath in a cupboard. Instead, he found the object of his search sitting at the card table alone. With two stacks of paper in front of her and a pencil in hand, she appeared the very model of scholastic enthusiasm. The pencil was moving so brightly it looked like an honor guard – parading across the page with its head held high then pivoting at the margin to make the quick march back.
This attention to detail, but detail that informs, is a particular skill of Towles and is the main reason for the novel’s veracity.
The count loves conversation and themes of history, philosophy, art, and music pepper his conversations with his acquaintances, the guests and staff in the hotel. He forms alliances, both romantic and platonic, he befriends a young idiosyncratic girl, Nina, who also lives in the hotel, and eventually joins the staff of the hotel as the head waiter in the hotel’s prestigious restaurant. However, he is surprised, at the age of forty nine, when Nina, now married and in search of her husband, who has been exiled to Siberia, leaves her daughter, Sofia, in his charge. He becomes the girl’s ‘father’ figure and then just her father. Nina is never seen again. Sofia is a prodigy at the piano and her success propels the account of the Count’s confinement to its conclusion.
The pleasure of this book is in the writing, not the plot, which is soft, episodic, and character-building. It would not make a good movie, but it would make a good TV series which seems very likely. On August 18, 2017, Entertainment One, a Canadian production company optioned the book for development. On April 4, 2018, Towles tweeted that Kenneth Branagh had joined the project as producer and star, with Tom Harper (Peaky Binders, War & Peace) as director. In July 2019 Towles admitted publicly that he was working on the adaptation but there has been no news since.
You can watch an interview with Amor Towles about this book here.
And here you can purchase the book in various formats.