Towling’s tale of an aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced to indefinite house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow after the Revolution was generally enjoyed. It is a beautifully written charming , whimsical fairytale of a story but some of us found the lack of realism given the backdrop of Russia under Stalin and Khrushchev too much. It recalled Wes Anderson’s film ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’.
The story takes place over 34 years and we have various episodes in the Count’s life recounted at increasingly large intervals. Early on the Count recalls his grandmother telling him that to show his feelings after losing a game is to let the other player win all over again, and so this the principle behind his approach to his imprisonment albeit in a gilded cage. He is a real gentleman, with old fashioned manners and is lovely company, appreciated by most of those he encounters. He is befriended by Nina, a child staying at the hotel and together they explore behind the scenes and witness events and meetings of historic importance taking place in the hotel. Later Nina leaves her daughter Sofia in his care and again there are delightful interactions between him and the child.
Setting the story within four walls is a challenge and inevitably it ends up being in a bubble with only incidental reference to events in the wider world. There could have been deeper reflection on what it was like to be so constricted. In time the Count becomes a waiter – presumably to give his life some structure (this is not spelled out), although his real purpose comes in having parenthood thrust upon him. The book emphasises friendship, the importance of home and the small pleasures that make life meaningful.