My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Why did I put off reading this book? It’s a slow and quiet story but it’s absolutely beautifully written. It’s full of depth and meaning and such incredibly detailed descriptions that you become immersed in the world Towles creates.
I became far more invested in the lives of these wonderfully rich characters than I could ever have imagined. There’s not a lot of action but there were many moments that were incredibly heartfelt and just completely blew me away.
On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.
But instead of being taken to his usual suite, he is led to an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely.
While Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval, the Count, stripped of the trappings that defined his life, is forced to question what makes us who we are. And with the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose.
I have to admit I went into this book with a little bit of trepidation. Historical fiction is not my favourite genre and given it was a story about a man stuck in a hotel for decades I feared that it would be slow, heavy and dull. Thankfully my fears were completely unfounded. It isn’t a fast paced, plot driven story but while it’s slow it’s beautifully written and seemed to transport me to both time and place.
I would probably describe it as more of a character study than a narrative of historical events, although these are woven into the story in subtle but memorable ways. The story covers a very long period of time and a time when there was a lot of change in Russia, but by limiting it to within the walls of the hotel you are in many ways a step removed from events. Like the Count you’re forced to experience events through the guests and visitors to the hotel, something I’m sure a lot of people won’t like but I absolutely loved.
This is a book that’s very heavy on descriptions from the guests, to the hotel, to the food and wine and it was beautiful. I felt like I was there in that time period with those people. Having a drink in the bar with the foreign reporters or enjoying a hearty stew and glass of wine in the piazza. There are just so many incredible moments, some funny, a few edge of the seat and many heartfelt. They are quiet but they’re full of emotion.
The characters are wonderfully rendered and I became much more attached to them than I ever expected to. The Count was absolutely brilliant. He is the definitive gentleman, well mannered, cultured, witty and laid back. I adored him from the very beginning to the very end. I admired how he dealt with everything with real class but especially loved how he developed over the course of the novel. The other characters are also brilliant. Each and every one has been created with such skill that they felt absolutely genuine and I could picture them in my head.
There isn’t huge amount to the plot, it’s not an action packed story, but it raises a lot of big issues and questions without ever becoming too heavy. Something which takes real skill from the author. It brought in a lot of philosophical questions that I found fascinating and that didn’t make me want to run for the hills, something which really takes skill. It was a story that drew me in completely and is the first book in a while that I’ve been talking to everyone about.
If by now you can’t tell, I loved this book. If you’re looking for fast paced or full of action it might not be for you but I do think it’s a book everyone should give a try.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy (and apologies for taking so long to read it). As always all thoughts are my own.