“If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”

In 1922, a few years after the Bolshevik revolution, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest by the Bolsheviks for being an aristocrat. The Count’s home at the time of sentencing is a suite at the Hotel Metropole. He is moved out of his suite to a small room on the sixth floor, where furniture and odds and ends are stored. Taking it in his stride, the Count picks out the things dearest to him and has them moved upstairs. He eventually finds a way to break the wall into the room next door—through his closet—and fashions for himself a suite of sorts.

The staff at the hotel know and like the Count. He has managed to stash some money and so is able to live reasonably well, eating at the two restaurants, the Piazza and the Boyarsky, which is more upscale. But living in a confined space starts to take its toll on him.

His ennui is broken by a little girl in yellow, Nina, who befriends him. Nina is staying at the hotel while her parents are away and has plenty of time to explore it, not least because she has managed to acquire a passkey to all the rooms. She opens up the hotel for him, taking him to spaces he did not know existed. When she leaves, she makes him a gift of the key. The next time he sees her, she has grown up into a serious young woman who is leaving to work in the provinces.

The years go by, and the Count settles into a daily routine. But Nina hasn’t finished with him. She shows up unexpectedly with her eight-year-old daughter Sofia, and asks him to take care of her while she goes to Siberia to look for her husband. She never comes back, and the man who had prided himself in not forming long-term relationships finds himself taking care of a child and seeing her into adulthood.

Life at the Metropole reflects the changes outside: the clientele shifts from aristocrats to Party apparatchiks. So does the management: an incompetent waiter, whom the Count dubs the Bishop, becomes the manager through his Party connections. The Count works as a waiter at the Boyarsky where he forms a Triumverate with his good friends, Emile, the chef, and Andrey, the headwaiter. They meet every morning to set (and sample) the day’s menu.    

The Count is a wonderful creation: erudite, courteous, observant and determined not to let his circumstances get the better of him. The hotel is full of vividly drawn characters: the hot-tempered and talented Emile, the unflappable Andrey, the seamstress Marina who teaches the Count how to sew, the actress Anna Urbanova with whom he has an on-off affair, Osip, the Party apparatchik who hires the Count to teach him English and French, and so many more.

I enjoyed Towles’s writing. Here is a description of Andrey’s virtuosity as a waiter: “Having led a group of women to their table…Andrey seemed to pull back the chairs all at once. …[W]hen the woman holding the wine list asked for a recommendation, he didn’t point to the 1900 Bordeaux—at least, not in the Teutonic sense. Rather, he slightly extended his index finger in a manner reminiscent of that gesture on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling with which the Prime Mover had transmitted the spark of life.”

This is a masterful book. I couldn’t imagine how Towles would be able to keep up an interesting story within the confines of a hotel. But all of life is there: intrigue, politics, spies, love and friendship; the life of the country is reflected in the goings-on of the hotel. I have to hand it to Towles: the story never flags.

In keeping with the confines of the setting, Towles has set himself limits for his chapter headings: every one of the words begins with an A. I also loved the little icons at the beginning of each section, depicting something that would be central to that part of the story.