This is a gentle and beguiling novel that reminded me a little of Alexander McCall Smith or Paul Gallico when he was writing some of his sentimental books. Amor Towles, like Smith, has persuasive characters who triumph over the trials of life by adherence to civility and a flexible view towards the foibles of others. The charming figure at the centre of the story, a Count in former Tsarist Russia, finds himself adrift after the communist revolution and avoids the firing squad only by a singular quirk of fate. Condemned to live the rest of his life in a tiny room at the top of the most prestigious hotel in Moscow, he continues to adhere to the principles that he believes should guide a gentleman’s conduct.
Life continues at the hotel while some of the inhabitants fall into his orbit and become stalwart friends. The Count’s story begins in the 1920’s and follows Russia’s descent into dictatorship. We see the Stalinist regression through the lens of characters who use the services of the hotel and come in contact with the Count.
Amor, like Smith, is a gifted writer and has produced a work well worth reading. It is a truly charming book in a way that eases the reader through the book with a delicious sense of good humor. I do have a few quibbles, notably the ending, which I found more curious than compelling. Without wishing to be the ‘spoiler’, I found myself wondering if the Count could really remain in Russia without: a) being discovered/arrested and b) being used as leverage against the one he loves most in the world.
Another quibble flows from the foreign characters that are staying in the hotel while spying on the Soviets. From other reading I’ve done, I am under the impression foreign nationals were restricted to staying in hotels where their rooms were all bugged by the KGB. That would make some of the scenes involving these characters a little suspect in terms of reality.
As regards Towles observations about the members of the Soviet Proscenium after Stalin’s death, I might recommend Knight’s recent book on Lavrenti Beria for a more compelling account of the inner machinations resulting in the triumph of Kruschev over his rivals.
On the whole I can’t see anyone disliking this book unless they restrict their reading to plot driven novels featuring lots of murder and mayhem.