This book first landed on my radar when it seemed so many people on LibraryThing were raving about it, although there were some more measured reviews as well. My usual strategy when I think I’m likely to read a book is to avoid all reviews or even plot summaries until after I read it, so I knew hardly anything about this one other than it involved someone living in a hostel in Moscow.
If you’re a normal person who would like just a little more setup, though still without spoilers, here it is: Alexander (the former Count) Rostov was living in Paris when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsar in 1917. Against all logic, considering his fellow aristocrats were being shot right and left, Rostov returned to Russia and set up house in the Hotel Metropol while the authorities decided his fate. Because he had written some poetry before the revolution that could be interpreted as supportive of the Bolshevik cause, the revolutionaries decided he would be allowed to live. But if he ever tried to set foot outside the hotel, he would be immediately shot.
Well, that’s quite a setup. As soon as I realized that was the lay of the land, I was intrigued because I love books where people are confined in unusual places (see Stephen King’s The Mist novella for a very different example of this trope). I did wonder how on earth that setup could lead to a 400-plus page book, but I settled in for the ride.
The story arcs across the 1920s to the 1950s, as Count Rostov settles into the hotel and makes the acquaintance of some very interesting people. He thinks he will have little difficulty with his confinement, given that the Hotel is essentially a small city: There is a newsstand, florist, barbershop, restaurant, bar, and other small shops and businesses. Really, he has everything he needs. Except, it turns out, the freedom to choose to be somewhere else:
<em>For several days, in fact, he had been fending off a state of restlessness. On his regular descent to the lobby, he caught himself counting the steps. As he browsed the headlines in his favorite chair, he found he was lifting his hands to twirl the tips of the mustaches that were no longer there. He found he was walking through the door of the Piazza at 12:01 for lunch. And at 1:35, when he climbed the 110 steps to his room, he was already calculating the minutes until he could come back downstairs for a drink. If he continued along this course, it would not take long for the ceiling to edge downward, the walls to edge inward, and the floor to edge upward, until the entire hotel had been collapsed into the size of a biscuit tin.</em>
Fortunately for the Count (and for the reader) a new resident of the hotel appears to take his mind off himself and his confinement, setting off a chain of events that reverberate throughout the rest of the book.
I appreciated the way Towles sign-posted the passing of the years and decades, and I never lost track of when we were or how old various people were meant to be. And as someone who doesn’t know as much Russian history as I wish, it was fascinating to read the way the revolutionaries lost so much of the idealism that fueled their original actions. And I’d be remiss not to mention how much I loved the writing, with the quote above a good example.
All in all, I’m sorry it took me so long to get to this one, but I’m glad I finally did. I have a hardcover of Towles’ latest book, The Lincoln Highway, which seems very different from the limited information I’ve allowed myself to consume. Heaven only knows how long it will take me to get to that one!