The Relationships We Build

Ah, the zenith of success. We strive all our lives to perch on that pedestal of abundance and opulence. It is the destination we all yearn for, the reason for all our hard work, for all the late nights at the office. It is the place that fuels us in our journey, a constant reminder that it is all going to be worth it in the end. However, the journey is not always the same because some were born with privileges, with silver spoons in their mouth that make them skip several phases of the journey. But as the old adage goes, the bigger and higher they are, the harder they fall. History is riddled with several instances of falling from glory. David and Goliath is a classic example.

The same can be said for the case of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the protagonist in Amor Towles’ second novel, A Gentlemen in Moscow. Born on October 24, 1889, in St. Petersburg, Russia, he descends from a prominent and affluent family. He was raised in the comfort and opulence of the family’s grand estate in Nizhny Novgorod. He also has a younger sister named Helena, and as aristocrats, the Rostovs make social calls to nearby estates by a horse-drawn troika. They are the quintessence of being born with silver spoons in their mouth. However, it was never always a rosy story. Tragedy struck when he was still eleven years old. Their parents passed away within hours of each other after being afflicted with cholera. Under the careful guidance of Grand Duke Demidov, the Count’s godfather and their father’s good friend, the Count grew up to be a refined man of culture, a well-educated and unimpeachable Russian nobleman.

A recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, a member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt, Count Rostov left Russia for Paris in the spring of 1906. However, when the Bolsheviks started to seize power from the Romanovs in what is now referred to as the Bolshevik Revolution, the Count returned to his home country. When the Bolsheviks managed to overthrow the Russian monarchy, unrepentant aristocrats such as Count Rostov were rounded up and arrested. His case was brought forward to the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs on 21 June 1922. The opening pages of the novel account for how his case was deliberated by the Bolshevic tribunal. For belonging to the wrong class and for being a poet, affronts to the Bolshevik philosophies, Count Rostov was bound to be meted with the steepest penalty: either a firing squad or exile to Siberia.

“It is a well-known fact that of all the species on earth Homo sapiens is among the most adaptable. Settle a tribe of them in a desert and they will wrap themselves in cotton, sleep in tents, and travel on the backs of camels; settle them in the Arctic and they will wrap themselves in sealskin, sleep in igloos, and travel by dog-drawn sled. And if you settle them in a Soviet climate? They will learn to make friendly conversation with strangers while waiting in line; they will learn to neatly stack their clothing in their half of the bureau drawer; and they will learn to draw imaginary buildings in their sketchbooks. That is, they will adapt.”

~Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

When hope seemed out-of-reach, Count Rostov, the titular gentleman, narrowly escaped an imminent death sentence because of a lengthy poem that was attributed to him. This poem, titled Where Is It Now? was written in 1913 and was considered by many as a “call to action.” The tribunal found the poem’s sentiment to favor the revolution they have espoused. Nevertheless, because of his social standing, he was seen as a potential threat to the Bolshevik ideals. However, some senior members of the Party begged to disagree and looked at him as a hero of the revolution. For the offenses of which he was found guilty, the tribunal sentenced Count Rostov to a lifetime of house arrest at the Hotel Metropol, his current residence. If at any point he attempts to step out of the hotel, he will immediately be shot to death. Showing no signs of contempt for his fate, the Count embraced his sentence.

A lifetime of house arrest at Hotel Metropol Moscow doesn’t seem too bad. Built from 1899 to 1905 in Art Nouveau style, it has built a reputation as one of the most luxurious hotels in Moscow, the newly-designated capital of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. But because of the communist ideals, the Count was stripped off of his material belongings. His books and manuscripts were taken away from him. The privileges and luxuries he was once afforded were all removed from him. Forced off of his luxurious suite, he had to make do with an austere, cramped attic room. It was the proverbial fall from grace. To earn his keep, he must work in the hotel, as a waiter at one of its restaurants. A nobleman forced to work was totally unheard of but Count Rostov cannot begrudge what has become of his life; he must count his graces.

But with the flow of time, things started to flourish. Rather than be weighed down by his life sentence, he started rebuilding his life with what he had. Within the confines of the hotel, Count Rostov found new meaning to his existence. While staying true to his birthright, he went about performing his duties as expected of any regular hotel employee. As the years passed by, the Count started to establish relationships and links with the people he work with and encounter. He forged a rapport with the chefs, the doormen, the bartenders, the seamstresses, and even the residents of the hotel. He also befriended a one-eyed cat, a former Red Army colonel, an orchestra conductor, an actress, and an aide-de-camp of an American general. With his élan for erudite and insightful conversations, it was as if the world never stopped for the Count. What seemed to be a punishment has now turned into an adventure.

Even though it was a lifetime house arrest, the Hotel slowly became the Count’s sanctuary and safe haven. Immersing in his new life, he gained more time to ruminate and grow as an individual. However, the passage of time, the tediousness of his new life, and the new connections he made did not quell the weight of his sentence, nor his longing for the world he once knew. His reprieve came in the form of Sofia, the daughter of Nina Kulikova, who, as a nine-year-old girl, was one of the Count’s early acquaintances. The year was 1938, almost two decades since the Count’s sentencing, and Nina, the daughter of a widowed Ukrainian bureaucrat, was now a married woman. However, her husband Leo was thrown into exile by the regime into one of its Gulags in the harsh Siberian tundra. Nina planned to follow her husband but trusts no one except the Count to look after their daughter. It was going to be temporary; once she reunites with her husband, Nina will iron out the details for Sofia’s transfer to Siberia. Ever the gracious gentleman, the Count relented.

“After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.”

~Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow did take time to soar; it began to take a fuller shape with the introduction of Sofia. This staunched pace can be attributed to the heaviness that the Count started to feel after being locked up in the Hotel for years. With the presence of Sofia, the Hotel and its staff started to come alive. There was also a palpable change that was taking place within the Count, who, at the age of 49, has become a surrogate father, something he never expected. In Sofia, he found a new purpose. He made sure that she was well looked after, that she had the best of everything. He took care of her like a treasure. With her intelligence and her demeanor, Sofia also complimented the Count. From the perspective of the casual spectator looking from the outside in, it is not a stretch of the imagination to conclude that they are a pair of father and daughter. Their relationship, and also his relationship with Nina, provided a softer portrait of the Count, one that is detached from his veneer of a nobleman.

The second half of the story, detailing the growing fondness between the Count and Sofia, was heartwarming and poignant. It reminded the readers of the beauty of the relationships we build with those around us, whether small or big. It showed that love transcends boundaries, including those of blood. This masterful orchestra was ably conducted by Towles. A skillful and riveting storyteller, he stirred the story’s various elements into a harmonious and cohesive whole. With the prowess of his storytelling, equally brilliant and entertaining, he managed to capture the beauty of the quotidian. His description gift made the setting come alive. The world inside Hotel Metropol slowly turned into a microcosm of a city, complete with amenities such as restaurants, a barbershop, and even a clothing store. While the focus was between the Count and Sofia, the story still gave enough space to capture the dynamics of the Hotel and its resident.

Count Rostov loomed large in the story. He was the quintessence of a nobleman and a gentleman. He was well-read and has a great taste in music. His house arrest afforded him time to finally read “The Essays of Montaigne”, a book owned by his father but one he never got the time to read. With his knack for conversation and his erudition, he has established himself among the elites of Moscow, and despite his fall from grace, he was still revered by the select few in his social circle. Working at the restaurant, he never had trouble sharing his opinions, a quality that others could find peevish. He does, however, make up for it with his charms. He also considered himself a sommelier and an expert in cuisines. The descriptions of food permeated the air with the scrumptious smell of food. Overall, he was a well-rounded character. The novel, however, does not reduce itself into an exploration of a singular character. His character was also shaped by an interesting set of characters who also had their own stories to share. In time, Count Rostov started calling himself the luckiest man in Russia.

The relative peace that prevailed inside of Hotel Metropol was contrasted with the tumult that was happening outside of its walls. The historical contexts gave the story another layer as Towles provided vivid descriptions of the events taking place in Stalin’s Russia. The denizens of the growing Communist nation were left with two choices: join the party and become comrades or renounce it and be shipped to the Gulags of Siberia. No one is safe, something that the Count has come to realize. Even the Hotel was not safe from the overtures of the regime. At one time, the hotel’s wine cellar became the subject of the regime’s caprice which adjudged it to be against the virtues the Revolution was built upon. To ensure his own safety, the Count established friendships with some members of the regime. Details of the unstable relationship between Moscow and Washington, D.C. were also underscored in the story. Towles did a commendable job of capturing the atmosphere of the time.

“Whichever wine was within, it was decidedly not identical to its neighbors. On the contrary, the contents of the bottle in his hand was the product of a history as unique and complex as that of a nation, or a man. In its color, aroma, and taste, it would certainly express the idiosyncratic geology and prevailing climate of its home terrain. But in addition, it would express all the natural phenomena of its vintage. In a sip, it would evoke the timing of that winter’s thaw, the extent of that summer’s rain, the prevailing winds, and the frequency of clouds. Yes, a bottle of wine was the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself.”

~Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

To think that the idea for the novel sprouted with Towles’ observations of luxurious European hotels and their permanent residents. His astute observations were channeled to Count Rostov, a memorable character on his own. A Gentleman in Moscow is an exemplary piece of literature. At its heart, a work of historical fiction, it transported the readers to a tumultuous phase of Russian history. The readers were regaled of with Towles’ bold strokes as he aptly captured the atmosphere of the time. However, it was not just the historical context that made A Gentleman in Moscow flourish. It was a rich tapestry woven together by Towles, enriched by elements of romance, politics, poetry, and parenthood. However, its most defining images were in the relationships that the novel’s main protagonist, Count Rostov, forged with the people around him. The relationship between the Count and Sofia was the most heartwarming.

How the mighty have fallen, one might think. But Count Rostov understood better. Despite his tenuous position, he stayed true to his nature and gracefully embraced his new life. What unfolded was an endearing story that kept the readers riveted. In his second novel, Towles provided the readers with an interesting and delightful read.

Ratings

94%

Characters (30%) – 30%
Plot (30%) – 
27%
Writing (25%) – 
24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
13%

Before 2019, I have never heard of Amor Towles nor had I encountered any of his works before. Things changed one fateful day at the bookstore when our paths finally intersected. It was there that I first saw A Gentleman in Moscow. My curiosity was piqued both by the title and the cover. I can’t remember reading the synopsis but I bought it nonetheless because it was selling at a lower price than the other books. When I learned about the book’s premise while reading the synopsis, my interest in the book doubled and luckily enough, I managed to read it earlier this year. I wasn’t too keen at the start. It was slow and I was having a challenging time drawing the images in my mind. But things started to make sense when Sofia entered the Count’s life. That was when I started appreciating the atmosphere of Hotel Metropol. There was also a switch that flipped in Count Rostov that made me connect with him. It is easily one of my best reads of 2021. Overall, it was a great book which makes me look forward to reading more of Towles’ works.

Book Specs

Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: January 2019
Number of Pages: 447
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

When, in 1922, thirty-year-old Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel near Kremlin. An indomitable man of erudition and wit, Rostov must now live in an attic room as some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold. Unexpectedly, the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry into a world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships with the hotel’s denizens. But when fate puts the life of a young girl in his hands, he must draw on all his ingenuity to protect the future she deserves. Hailed for its humor, intrigue, and beautifully rendered scenes, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the Count’s endeavor to become a man of purpose.

About the Author

Amor Towles was born in 1964 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, where he was also raised. He earned his college degree at Yale College. He completed his Masters of Arts in English at Stanford University where he was also a Scowcroft Fellow. Following his graduation from Yale, he was supposed to teach in China on a two-year fellowship from Yale-China Association. It was, however, canceled due to the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. With his path redirected, he worked for over two decades, first, as an investment banker and, eventually, director of research at Select Equity Group in New York.

Towles now devote his life entirely to writing. His first novel, Rules of Civility, was published in 2011. It was a commercial success, climbing the New York Times bestseller list in both hardcover and paperback. It was also ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the best books of 2011. More success ensued with the publication of his second novel, A Gentlemen in Moscow, in 2016. It was also a New York Times bestseller and was ranked as one of the best books of the year by several publications such as the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the St. Louis Dispatch, and NPR. It was a finalist for the 2016 Kirkus Prize for Fiction and was longlisted for the 2018 International Dublin Literary Award. His latest novel, The Lincoln Highway, was published in October 2021. He also writes short stories and his works have appeared in the Paris ReviewGrantaBritish Vogue, and Audible Originals.

Towles currently resides in Manhattan with his wife and two children. He also has a vast set range of interests, from collecting 20th-century paintings to listening to 1950s Jazz and rock & roll on vinyl to watching 1970s cop shows.