The gentleman of the title is Count Alexander Rostov who was 30 years old when placed under house arrest in 1922. His crime was being an “unrepentant aristocrat” and his place of incarceration was the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov spent from 1922 until the mid-fifties as a political prisoner, confined to a small attic room in the hotel. During his arrest, he observed from his dormer window, “…some of the most turbulent decades in Russian history” as it unfolded outside the hotel.
His story is sometimes tedious , oftentimes humorous–a story of friendships. His friendships, first as a patron of the hotel, later as a waiter ,involved a Russian actress, a shrewd Kremlin official, a temperamental chef, and most importantly, a young girl, Nina, daughter of another government officer. It is years later that Nina returns to her old friend and deposits in his care her young daughter, Sophia. Rostov raises Sophia as his daughter within the world of the hotel, and she comes to love him and call him “Papa.”
The book is beautifully written, has excellent characterization, and enough intrigue and danger to keep any reader turning the pages. Most of all, The Count wants to be a “man of purpose,” something one would doubt could be accomplished from a tiny room at the top of a building, but something that Rostov accomplishes in spades. Instead of regretting his restricted life, The Count lives his life to the fullest, considering himself and being considered by others as “the luckiest man in the world.”
The book is a novel, but it is written so well, the reader would swear it was “fiction based on fact.” It is the best book I have read during 2016. I plan to read Rules of Civility, a prior novel by Towles and anything else he has written.