Snowdrops (2011) by A.D. Miller
I actually bought this book several months ago; a handful of good reviews combined with the setting, Moscow (I've been fascinated with Russia since my teens, and wrote my university dissertation on the Russian presidency) piqued my interest, but somehow I never got around to reading it. I only remembered it after learning that it's one of the thirteen books on the longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize. Billed as 'an intensely riveting psychological drama', Snowdrops follows about a year in the life of Nicholas Platt, an English lawyer living and working in Moscow. A chance encounter with two young women, sisters Masha and Katya, develops into a friendship and, with Masha, a rather one-sided relationship. Nick agrees to help the girls' ageing aunt with the sale of her flat; at work, meanwhile, he is involved in a business deal with a shady character known only as the Cossack. The reader knows from the beginning that something or other is going to go wrong, as Nick narrates his story from a future perspective, and drops occasional hints that all is not as it seems - particularly with regards to Masha. All in all, I started this book feeling very intrigued about what turns the plot might take, and relishing the Russian setting. However, it turned out to be one of the biggest reading disappointments I've had all year.
The first stumbling block was the main character. Nick is far from likeable - immature, judgmental, sexist and sleazy, a grown man who looks down on his own parents; I think he's meant to represent the corrupting influence of modern Russia on a gullible Westerner, but it seemed more likely to me that he just wasn't a very nice person to begin with. At first, I felt his unpleasant attitude to women and apparent lack of experience with them (we learn he's only ever had one relationship, with a girl from university) were surely down to youth. I assumed he was in his mid-twenties at the very oldest, so it was a significant shock when his age was dropped into the narrative and it turned out he was 38! It's clear his 'love' for Masha is more of an obsession, but she does nothing to justify it - she's portrayed throughout as cold and almost characterless. I would have found her more interesting and perhaps even someone I could sympathise with, except there's no meat on the bones of the character. There's no suspense involved in figuring out that she's deluding Nick - it couldn't be more obvious.
The second issue was the narrative structure. For some unknown reason, perhaps in an an attempt to add an extra layer of intrigue to the plot, the author has chosen to relate Nick's tale in the form of a letter to his present-day fiancée, looking back on his time in Moscow. This is problematic on so many levels. The fiancée character isn't so much one-dimensional as nonexistent - I couldn't get any sense of who she was, and the device was so cursory it felt as though it had been tacked on after the rest of the book was already written. Apart from that, the story doesn't work as a letter - there's too much dialogue and detail, and I refuse to believe any man would be so rigorously committed to telling the truth that he'd fill a letter to his current partner with details of threesomes with strippers, how many times he'd paid for sex, how irresistably sexy he found his ex-girlfriend, how he occasionally fantasised about her sister, and so on. This all happened years before he met the fiancée, so it's not as if there's any need for Nick to 'confess', and it's obvious the author just didn't want to leave the sex out of the story and has used the conceit of Nick's absolute honesty to justify its presence. Furthermore, when the book ends with Nick lamenting his present 'thin life' and how much he misses Masha and Moscow, it's impossible to understand how on earth he could have ended up becoming engaged to this woman, let alone why he'd bother to sit down and write a lengthy, confessional document to her.
The only thing I really liked about Snowdrops was the setting. The frozen wastes, seedy clubs and shabby flats of Moscow were all evoked well and I enjoyed how the corruption and bribery spawned by Russia's history were shown to have invaded every aspect of the characters' lives. But on the whole, the book isn't particularly well-written (there's a lot of repetition - try counting how many times Nick says 'one of those...' or 'it was, I think, [name of month]') and for a story brimming with degredation and vice, it's somewhat lacking in action. In fact, nothing much happens at all. It can basically be summed up thus: some people pretend to be something they're not to get money out of an unpleasant man who thinks with his dick. Big deal! Nicholas isn't even particularly upset or affected by the loss of the money, so the final 'revelations', if they can be called that after the heavy-handed hints dropped throughout the rest of the novel, don't have much impact.
I do generally look upon the Booker as a benchmark of sorts; I've read a number of Booker-nominated novels I haven't liked much, but I have at least generally found them to be high quality, well-crafted and so on. I suppose this must have made it onto the longlist for the same reason the horrendously overrated Room was shortlisted last year (though that at least had a bit of media hype and controversial subject matter going for it). I just can't believe the panel would overlook something like Jane Harris's sublime Gillespie and I for this! But I suppose that's beside the point. Personally, I wouldn't recommend this book at all, though perhaps other readers with different tastes might get more out of it. It's certainly not the worst thing I've ever read, but even so, I think there's too many other good reads out there for it to be worth the time.