Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller

Doubleday, 2011
262 pp.

If nothing else, this has to be one of the most atmospheric novels I've read in a long while.  Set in Moscow in the last decade, Snowdrops is framed as a letter to the main character's (Nicholas Platt) fiancée, an answer to her question of why he never talks about his time in Russia or why he left there. He's writing it down so he wouldn't have to watch the fiancée "make an effort to put a brave face on things," and maybe because he wants to come clean about his past.  

There are really three threads of plot that compose this novel.  Tired of England and the ho-hum life he sees all around him, likely afraid that he'll end up like his parents,  Nicholas, an attorney, takes a job in Russia where at present the firm is acting for a consortium of banks who are about to lend money (a mere five-hundred million dollars) to Narodneft, the state energy company.   Narodneft and an unknown logistics firm are planning to build some sort of floating oil terminal in the Barents Sea. The company is ready to list shares in the NYSE so everything needs to at least look kosher. Nicholas and his coworkers sense that there's something not quite right, but they do what they're hired to do anyway. The firm's contact is known only as "The Cossack," who is a rather shady character at the heart of the deal.   Thread the second: while at the subway one day, Nicholas stops a purse snatcher, and meets the intended victim Masha, along with her sister Katya. Nick finds himself quite infatuated with the furtive Masha, and eventually they get together.  Masha and Katya have an aunt, Tatiana, who lives in what is now a prime piece of real estate, but the girls have been trying to convince her to move out and sell the flat, which is worth a fortune. Nicholas has agreed to help with the legalities of the transaction, but as he will find out soon enough, and as he hints in his narrative, there's more to these girls that meets the eye.  And finally,  Nick is also involved with his elderly neighbor, who has asked for help in locating a missing friend.  The friend's apartment is occupied, but it's not by the friend. 

Miller's Moscow is a place where money can buy the most outlandish forms of fun, sex, and pleasure (all neatly detailed in Nick's narrative); it's an environment where it's difficult not to become enmeshed in the atmosphere of corruption that permeates the place, and it's a city where what might seem to be a  lack of morality for some is a normal way of life and a way to survive for others. Above all, it's definitely not a place for the faint of heart.  As one of Nick's friends puts it:
Russia...is like Lariam. You know, that malaria medicine that can make you have wild dreams and jump out of the window. You shouldn't do it if you're the kind of the person who gets anxious or guilty, Nick. You shouldn't do Russia. Because you'll crack.
But by the time this advice is offered, it's a bit too late for Nick:  his lack of common sense and moral compass seem to have been hijacked somewhere along the way as he becomes swept up both in events and in living in Moscow. I can sort of understand Nick in that light. It doesn't mean I like him.

Snowdrops is one of those books where the reader knows exactly what's going on, or if not exactly, has a sort of premonition that there are bad things brewing. What I liked about this novel is that the author managed to set up the situation by dropping hints here and there that all is not what it seems, so that the reader has the anticipation of watching things unravel as the story progresses. I also loved his descriptions of life in Moscow and of a society gone a bit crazy.  On the other hand, the story is dark and often claustrophobic -- there were times when I couldn't wait to put the book down and take a breath of fresh air.

What I didn't find at all plausible was the letter format -- way too much dialogue for a letter; way too much descriptive language; although Nick needed a vehicle for telling his story, it didn't work for me. But overall, Snowdrops is a good read; the scenes depicting a nearly-lawless Moscow are probably the best part of this book.  The plot is a bit obvious in several places, but you will definitely find yourself turning pages to see what happens.


  1. I've just given up on this one. I didn't like the writing style and I got bored with it quite quickly. It sounds as though I didn't miss too much ;-)

  2. Lots of people feel exactly the same way. It's been a while since I ran into such an ugly group of characters.


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