Count Alexander Rostov is everything we’d like a Count to be : a tall and imposing build, elegant moustachios, impeccably dressed, an expert marksman, an aristocratic cosmopolitan, charming, beautiful manners, a refined palate in wine, food and women, but above all – he is the quintessential gentleman. But alas, in Moscow in 1922 he is declared persona non grata, and exiled. He becomes, in Communist-speak, a Former Person.
However, the unflappable Count adjusts to his new situation with fortitude, grace and a healthy dose of guile. We follow his changing fortunes right up until 1954, where the book ends. En route we follow the path of Russian history as it slowly changes into the powerful and feared Communist Russia of Nikita Kruschev.
Towles skilfully gives us a 30 year history of modern Russia, but in a painless way, and often with a patina of wry humour, skilfully weaving the information into the background of the story. I would love to know if he actually met and talked to any of the exiled Russian aristocrats who decorated Paris and Prague in the 1930s. I suspect they are long gone, but Towles gets the tone exactly right, whatever his sources.
But the book really is the story of the marvellous Count Rostov and the many people who cross his path in the years of transition. And what a varied assembly they are: hotel staff, Party officials, friends, writers, children, lovers , providing a rich novel that never falters . I read the book slowly, savouring the story. In fact, I didn’t want it to end.
What a rich, satisfying read. On the whole, I am not a huge fan of Historical Novels.But, this said: I loved the book and wholeheartedly recommend it.
P.S. I realised, in retrospect, how very clever the jacket photograph was. Kudos to whoever designed it.