Book review: Snowdrops by A D Miller

Snowdrops by A D Miller, Atlantic 2011.

Snowdrops is a debut novel that comes garnished (OK, garnered) with praise from the UK literary “mafia” – on the cover alone are endorsements from Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jonathan Dimbleby and Julie Myerson. After all the advance publicity last year that was hard to avoid, I was slightly put off reading this novel but as it was in my local library last week I decided to try it. In sum, it is a passable read but the people who rave about it really should get out more, by which I mean “read some proper crime fiction”.

The novel is about a mid-30s lawyer, Nicholas Platt, who is based in Moscow for a couple of years to help ease through the multimillion dollar deals that typify the “new” Russia. Of course corruption is endemic but Nicholas is incurious, despite having a good friend who is a cynical journalist, and who tells him all the latest scams and fashionable crimes. The plot is two-stranded: Nicholas’s firm is acting for some banks who are lending oodles of money to some Russian companies who plan to supply oil from the north in some complicated deal that Nicholas neither understands fully or wants to – as he is only a lawyer he reckons he has no responsibility for anything dodgy. Even so, the set-up is so blindingly obvious; even I, who knows nothing about business, could have avoided the outcome of these transactions by one relatively simple action.

The more compelling plot thread involves Nicholas’s relationship with Masha and her “sister” (or possibly “cousin”) Katya. The two attractive girls meet Nicholas on the metro after he rescues them from a half-hearted attack. Nicholas falls for Masha in a big way; most of the book is about his feelings for her and the tale of their relationship as they do the rounds of various Moscow and other Russian bars, restaurants, hotels and so on. The girls have an old aunt who wants to leave her traditional Moscow apartment for a place in the country, and soon Nicholas is involved in drawing up the paperwork for the transaction.

Nicholas is unbelievably naive: we are supposed to imagine that he is so smitten with Masha that he will do anything, even though he has never seen where she lives, does not know her address and his only way of contacting her is by mobile phone. I don’t want to give away any spoilers (though we do know right from the start that everything has gone wrong somehow, as Nicholas is writing the novel as a confessional document to a subesequent, safely English, fiancee), but Nicholas’s deliberately stupid and blinkered actions mean that there is little suspense in the story, or involvement by the reader in him as a protagonist.

The book’s strength is in its depiction of Moscow (and other parts of Russia). Here, it comes to life as characters are tellingly observed, personal history and politics are woven into the narrative, and the scenes are described with clarity. The author was the Economist’s Moscow correspondent from 2004-2007, so it is not surprising that the best parts of the book are, in effect, a journalist’s observations of Russia at that time – either through Nicholas’s own perspective or via his knowledgeable friend, who obligingly provides several overviews to keep the reader up to speed.

Snowdrops is a short book which takes not much more than an hour (or two) to read, and is very easy-going, so I can say I quite enjoyed it, even though the plot itself is so weak. I did not think that readers needed to be told four separate times of the peculiarly Russian definition of “snowdrops”, particularly as I felt this part of the story was not very strong (to say why would again give away a spoiler, and for a plot so bare, there aren’t that many elements to spoil!).

Read some other reviews of this novel at: The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent.

17 thoughts on “Book review: Snowdrops by A D Miller

  1. Maxine, do you really read a 288 page novel in “not much more than an hour (or two)”!

    This does explain your prodigious reviewing output – I read much more slowly, and am still lucky if I can remember a few names and a sliver of plot!

  2. Heh heh, Clare😉

    Philip – it’s a very small format book (a HB the size of a PB) and the font large/white space round edges, etc! It was a wet weekend day so I had the time – and reading is pretty much all I do in my non-work, non-household maintenance, time. I do have to write up my reviews immediately, though, or I would not remember a thing a few days later.

  3. I am at the moment much in favour of short books but even so I might give this one a pass, unless I spy it at the library one day. Thanks as I have been wondering about this one.

  4. Maxine – Thanks, as ever. I haven’t read this one, but had to laugh at your recommendation to “get out more.” At some point I might read this one for the Moscow setting, but probably will give it a miss for now. Way too much else more compelling on my TBR right now…

  5. Good decision, Margot, this one falls into the “not bad but not stand out” category, I’d say.

  6. t Maxine, Interesting review. I rather take a different
    stance. Many folk are naive and make blinkered decisions when
    it comes to matters of love (or lust). I see it in work every day..
    I thought the worthy factor in this novel was showing how a
    fundamentally decent person can unconsciously become
    influenced by the amoral society in which he lives –so as to
    lose his own moral base—and thereby behave in the way he does.

  7. I think that’s a very valid comment and view, Simon. Although I agree with your point, I am not sure that the author realistically conveyed it, as he stacked the odds so much – the character seemed to be aware of what was happening to him, but let it happen anyway, out of loneliness or whatever – that part is realistic, I imagine, but I felt the whole set-up and so on was rather obvious. Maybe I’ve been reading too much crime fiction.

  8. “a passable read but the people who rave about it really should get out more, by which I mean “read some proper crime fiction”. LOL! I agree! I gave up on this book becasue it was so boring. I think that those who love this book aren’t fans of crime fiction though – it seems to appeal to literary fiction fans who don’t need a plot.

  9. 😉 , Jackie. I’ve read books that are far worse though – or rather hurled them across the room 100 pages in never to return to them. (Esp serial killers, torture, inventively horrible death scenes, etc.)

  10. Your new website design and artwork is lovely.
    Just read your review of Donna Leon’s latest book. I concur. I enjoyed this book; it was a quick read which I savored. I would add only one point: Love is a key theme here, more than in the other books about the Brunettis.
    Although they have a loving family, here this comes out much more into the open. And, love is a motive in the crimes, and is something Brunetti understands.
    Did you write a review of Sister by Rosamund Lupton? And what do you think of S.J. Bolton’s books? (I’m trying to figure out if they are too violent for my taste.)

  11. Thanks, Kathy! The new design (2011) is WordPress’s upgrade of the old one (2010) so I thought I’d give it a go.

    Good point about the Donna Leon book, thanks.

    Yes, I started the Kate S series because Keishon wrote that love is involved, and I was pleased to find that it is, but not in a romanticised, sentimental way so I am definitely going to read more of these. According to the author’s website the backlist has been out of print but is now available in e-form in the US and UK (I can get at least some on Amazon UK Kindle). Not sure if you read e-books, though, I think I read somewhere you writing that you did not.

    Sister, yes, I reviewed it and liked it – much more for the relationship between the sisters (and later on with the mother) than the crime plot- but definitely worth reading, and a quick one. My review is here: http://petronareviews.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/sister-by-rosamund-lupton/

    I have only read one S J Bolton (the first) and I enjoyed it though it was too long and the plot too far-fetched in the end. http://petronareviews.wordpress.com/2010/02/07/sacrifice-by-s-j-bolton/ I have not read any more by her but clearly I must as everyone raves about her books (eg see eurocrime reviews). She does not write a series but standalones. I do not remember Sacrifice as being violent at all, though there is a part at the start about the protagonist discovering a dead horse (or something involving a dead horse). But no drawn-out violence, torture, etc, from my memory. (I don’t mind violence happening as long as it is briskly dealt with in the old style of writers in the 50s and 60s before all this “dwelling on the details of the agony” became fashionable).

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