I think I was expecting too much…

Snowdrops by A D Miller
I bought this debut novel at the beginning of the year.  It’s had a lot of interest even before it was Booker longlisted. Trying to ignore the hype, I dove in…

It’s a tale of an Englishman abroad. Nick is a thirty-something lawyer working in Moscow. One day, he stops a mugger from stealing a beautiful woman’s bag in the Metro.  She is Masha, and soon they begin a relationship.  He meets Masha’s younger sister Katya, and their old aunt – everything seems to be going well between them, Masha stays over regularly and he hopes she could be ‘the one’.

Then the sisters enlist his help as a lawyer to do the conveyancing (Moscow style) on selling their aunt’s flat and moving her to a nice new one in the suburbs.  Meanwhile, in his day job, Nicholas works on the legal side of corporate finance – always a risky business in Russia. His firm is helping the banks finance a big deal for a new Arctic oil terminal being built by the ‘Cossack’.

You can sense right from the start that his home and work lives will go up the creek eventually.  This is telegraphed by the way, now back in England,  the novel is written as a confession to his new fiancée – he feels the need to come clean about what happened in Moscow that winter; after reading this, surely there will not be a future Mrs.  So why did he go to Russia in the first place?

I gave the easy answers I always did when asked that questions: ‘I wanted an adventure.’
That wasn’t really true. The reason, I can see now, is that I found myself entering the thirty-something zone of disappointment, the time when momentum and ambition start to fade and friends’ parents start to die. the time of ‘Is that all there is?’ People I knew in London who had already got married began to get divorced, and people who hadn’t adopted cats. People started running marathons or becoming Buddhists to help them get through it. For you I guess it was those dodgy evangelical seminars you once told me yuo went to a couple of times before we met. The truth is, the firm asked me if I’d go out to Moscow, just for a year, they said, maybe two. It was a short cut to a partnership, they hinted. I said yes, and ran away from London and how young I wasn’t any more.

Nikolai, as Masha calls him, is just not hard enough to survive long term in such a sleazy, corrupt and cutthroat world. He’s naive and not capable of thinking like a Russian.  His neighbour Oleg warns him. His best friend Steve, a journalist who has gone native, warns him.  He takes no notice until it’s too late.

I did enjoy this novel, but was also disappointed.  Maybe having read other books like Le Carré’s The Russia House and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, I was expecting a bit more intrigue, a bit more real jeopardy.  It all seemed a bit low rent for a ‘psychological drama’ as the blurb put it.  The real star of the book is Russia itself – from the restaurants and nightclubs to the snow filled streets and freezing weather, and everywhere oozing corruption.

Will it make the Booker shortlist?  I don’t think so.  Snowdrops is a fine debut novel, but not quite special enough for me. (7.5/10)

Read what some other bloggers say: Petrona, and DGR.

* * * * *
I bought my book. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Snowdrops by A D Miller, Atlantic hardback, 273 pages.
The Russia House (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Le Carré
The Quiet American by Graham Greene

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9 thoughts on “I think I was expecting too much…

  1. I was a little underwhelmed by this one too Annabel, not nearly as thrilling as a thriller should be and with a central character whose passivity really sapped the energy. Everyone was expecting some thrillers on the list with Rimmington at the helm but as you say, the book doesn’t match up to Le Carre or Greene.

    • I forgot you’d read this already in m quick search for some links Will. Nick was a Patsy (to mix my cultures), I was just waiting for him to fail. It was more of a love story to Russia and Russians; as a thriller, it didn’t have the legs.

  2. I wasn’t impressed by this one either – there was nothing thrilling about it at all. I agree that there were some good descriptions of Russia, but I wished there had been a bit of plot too.

    • All the Russians were on the make – I think I expected Masha to be a corporate spy for the banks or something, but no she was just out for herself. I would have liked more plot too Jackie.

  3. I actually liked this one. I just reviewed it on my blog. I think there’s a lot of food for thought here with regards to Nick’s moral decline and I was surprised (spoiler alert) that in spite of it all that he actually missed Moscow and Masha in the end. I doubt his marriage went ahead.

    • I just read your great review Mrs B. I have to say I agree with it all. I did enjoy it, but it’s just that I do expect ‘psychological thrillers’ to be a bit more thrilling, and that’s why it fell slightly flat for me.

      So it’s all the blurb’s fault 😉

  4. I tend to concur with the consensus in the earlier comments. It had some interesting things to say about contemporary Russia and how its experience of totalitarian communism, followed by a decade of uncontrolled capitalism, helped create the unusual and daunting place it is today. It held my attention for a single read, but I doubt I will read it again or remember much about it a couple of months from now. I also think it will be harmed by having been mis-labelled as a thriller. There’s nothing wrong with a good thriller: this just isn’t a thriller, good or bad. A thriller requires a sense of tension arising from not knowing what is going to happen whereas, as you point out, it is fairly clear where this is headed from the start.

    When I read ‘Snowdrops’ at the beginning of the last week it made me feel grateful to live in England rather than Russia. That was to overlook somewhat the point it makes that most of the wrongs it describes are actually fairly common human traits and not by any means unique to Russia. One of the parts that is still resonating with me is when one of the narrator’s business colleagues takes him to task for thinking that he is somehow immune from, or better than, what he sees around him. This week, sadly, this point is likely to ring all too true for many English readers. That said, I think I would still feel lucky not to live in Russia today – with absolutely no disrespect to the decent people who do. From this book and others, one gets the impression that, yet again, they are at the mercy of a corrupt and brutal elite. Indeed, reading ‘Snowdrops’ might be a useful corrective to those who, understandably enough given the events of the past few days in several English cities, have been quick to draw the conclusion that the land of Shakespeare and Milton is somehow uniquely up the proverbial creak. (Actually Milton was not exactly a ‘nice guy’ by all accounts, but that’s another story.) To condemn the rioters is self-evidently correct; to let their actions lead to a loss of faith in the places we live and the decent majority we share them with would be to let them win.

    • Thanks David – I agree with your sentiments too. I don’t think I could live in Russia either – I would struggle mentally, and physically to play the game/system.

      On the question of thriller/not thriller – why do we always try to pigeonhole books? As a reader who tries to read any, well almost any, type of novel, I do it too when I write them up, (administers virtual slap to wrist). I can feel another post coming on to discuss this further …

  5. I completely agree with your closing comment about Russia becoming a character of her own. It was my favourite part of the book. Having lived there the descriptions of Russian life tickled me, saddened me and had me yearning to book tickets for a plane to Moscow.

    I think if you have lived in Russia, you perhaps get more from this book. The cold, the police, the way the women treat Nick and even the plot came as nothing of a surprise and, yet, that was part of the charm for me. Its predictabilty had me nodding and thinking, yes, that’s what it’s like in an oddly nostalgic way. Russia is an enigmatic place that pulls you in like no other country and I think that comes across in the book perfectly!

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