I’d heard so many rave reviews of Amor Towles’ second novel that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. More than one person said it was the best book of the year for them. So it was perhaps inevitable that I would set myself up for disappointment.
The book is certainly entertaining I just expected…more. More than Eloise for grown-ups, which is what I kept thinking of as I read the novel.
We begin in 1922 when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest. Fortunately, he lives in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow so while he is a prisoner of sorts, it’s a pretty luxurious prison. The Count is an easy-going, aristocratic fellow, used to the finer things in life such as wine, good food, beautiful women. He’s still able to enjoy all of these things over the next years of his life in the Metropol. Truthfully, it’s hard to say how much his life really changes by his imprisonment. This is partially because we don’t see much of his life previous to his sentence and partially because his life doesn’t actually change much. Not through the upheavals of Moscow in the early twentieth century, not through World War Two. There are references to food scarcity and some political meetings but it never feels like the Count is in danger or that much of anything bad will happen to him. He seems to live a charmed, if imprisoned life.
The novel is largely character driven and it does sparkle here as we get to know the people who live and work in the Metropol. They are eccentric and charming and although some start off a little flat, Towles does a good job of expanding their lives as the Count gets to know each one better. When Towles takes us deeper into the lives of these characters – showing us what life is like for them outside of the hotel, for example – the novel offers glimpses of real depth. Unfortunately, these scenes are short and infrequent. As Russia changes so does the Count’s position and prestige and he adapts remarkably well to this for someone used to a life of ultimate privilege. It probably helps that he is apparently unbelievably talented at everything he sets his mind to – from eavesdropping to seat arrangements.
I would have liked to see more of the broader setting of Moscow. The novel spans from 1922 into the 1960s, a time of huge change in Russia and in the lives of ordinary people. Yet Towles seems to downplay the historical background as insignificant to the story of the Count. It’s hard to imagine that even in such a unique setting as the Metropol, people would be living so separately from the life of the city at large.
There’s lots to enjoy here as the book is well-written, often funny, and has a certain sparkle of language that makes it easy to read. If you’re looking for something more in-depth or challenging about Russia in the early 20th century, this isn’t it.