97 of 107 people found the following review helpful
On the surface, A.D. Miller's fascinating debut novel Snowdrops has all the ingredients of a devastating tale of morality gone awry. Set brilliantly in the heart of Moscow and its environs, the wintry setting provides a background to a world that exists unlike any other. And Miller's strength is that he has an insider's knowledge of this strange, but distasteful, land where bureaucratic corruption, decadence, and petty fraud coexist with beauty, idealism, and cultural promise. Okay, so maybe it's not a world "unlike any other" under those terms--but there's just something so inherently intriguing about the openness of Moscow's decadence that makes it an undeniably appealing "character" in Miller's story. And, in fact, Moscow is the most delineated and complex "character" that Miller has described. The human protagonists, however, are all rather chilly. The book unfolds as a confessional with British lawyer Nick Platt recounting, via writing, his past indiscretions to his unseen new fiance.
Set in the early 2000's, Snowdrops introduces Platt--middle-aged and somewhat isolated in a hedonistic new city. He spends his days officiating vaguely defined business enterprises with fairly unsavory characters. He's just putting in his time, not asking questions, and enjoying (however reluctantly he paints it) the sins that the city's nightlife has to offer. His days start to brighten, however, as he rescues two young ladies from a mugging. They begin a friendship that becomes more intense. Soon Platt finds himself in a full-on romance with one of the girls. And his devotion is seemingly blind to the realities of the relationship. When they solicit his legal expertise in a real estate transaction involving their aunt, Platt acquiesces compliantly. But you know, from the first pages of Snowdrops, that this tale is headed to dark territory--the only mystery is how willingly Platt will become a part of that darkness.
Despite being referenced as somewhat of a psychological thriller (The Talented Mr. Ripley and Gorky Park are thrown in as comparison points by the publisher), Snowdrops is indisputably a character study. And, herein, (for me) lies the problem. As everything in Platt's confession is told through a rather gauzy reinterpretation, the supporting and peripheral characters can only be marginally defined through his eyes. And his utter complacency in his own life leads to a true lack of character development for everyone else in the novel. But that's okay and, in fact, I'm positive that was Miller's intent. And I love the idea, in theory. But that leaves Platt as the emotional center of Snowdrops and, unfortunately, that's where and why the book seemed so chilly and detached in the long run. Platt's confession lacks drama and conviction. He states the facts of what happens without seeming to be invested in anything.
Snowdrops, without a doubt in my mind, could have been a powerful and devastating tale of moral ambiguity. Platt's delusion while the events were transpiring might have been offset in his telling, but that's not what Miller wants to convey. Platt was seduced and intoxicated by his experience in Moscow and it was worth ANY price. That's clear--and that tone, which is fully intentional, kept me from ever really connecting with Platt. At the end, for me, Platt remains a curiously detached cipher (like the aforementioned Ripley, but Ripley's exploits were cunningly treacherous and he was an active participant in his own story). Snowdrops then seems like a novel with no real center--a passive protagonist who is still dishonest with himself. And, ultimately, that's why Moscow stands as the most intriguing aspect and most fully developed character that Miller's world presents. KGHarris, 1/11.
53 of 65 people found the following review helpful
This is a fast read, mainly because you won't want to put it down. The story is told by Nicholas Platt, a lawyer from England, presumably talking to his fiancee. He, like the author, worked in Moscow for a number of years, and so you get a rich description of the city, the restaurants, hotels, casinos, nightclubs, old building facades, subways and parks. The author was able to make me see the city as a whole, not just the picture of the Kremlin you get on posters. He also got across what it was like to live there for the generation that survived WWII and Stalin, and the younger people, under thirty, born after the fall of Communism. There is nothing that is not for sale and everyone has their hands out from beggars to government officials to taxi drivers to judges. In such an atmosphere of crime and corruption, I wondered that Nick would be so gullible as to take everyone at face value. I think anyone who is living and working in a foreign country should be doubly on their guard, because they are outsiders. People may think they know their way around, but they may be more at risk than a tourist or student who leaves in a short time (exception: Natalee Holloway). You can't be too trusting. What starts out as a bland story, but has enough foreshadowing to keep you reading, of course ends in total disaster. It's tightly written with interesting characters (Nick sure found them interesting, until he learned what they really were). For a first novel, I thought it was excellent.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2011
A British lawyer, Nicholas Platt, is working in Moscow in the hectic, free-for-all, Wild East days of the new Russia. By day he helps negotiate huge bank loans to facilitate Russia's economic development. These deals involve a number of shady characters and questionable assumptions, but Nick is caught up in the free-wheeling, anything goes climate, and whatever moral scruples he might have brought with him from the UK are quickly eroding. The same is true of his personal life as Nick gets caught up in exotic and often erotic lifestyle that flows from the rivers of cash that are flooding through the city.
One afternoon, Nick saves two attractive sisters from a purse snatcher and he is soon involved romantically with Masha, the older of the two. The women are very mysterious; even Masha reveals little of herself to Nick. But he is too caught up in the intimacy which he believes to be love. Then Masha and her sister, Katya, ask Nick to help their elderly aunt in the sale of her apartment and the purchase of a new one. It quickly becomes apparent to Nick that this deal may not be completely legitimate, but by now he is completely bedazzled by Masha, and his moral compass has long since lost the ability to find True North. He knows he is almost certainly heading for a fall, but like any true noir character, he's long past caring.
This is an excellent debut novel that paints a gripping portrait of the new Russia and the seduction of man who is powerless to resist its allure. It should appeal to those who like their novels dark and their characters flawed and in the grip of an attraction beyond their power to control.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2011
A.D. Miller's first novel, Snowdrops, has been shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, one of the British Commonwealth's most prestigious writing awards. It's a fine novel, telling a story that hasn't been told elsewhere: what Moscow looked like, felt like, how it did business and how it was criminal in the days just after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The first person narrator, Nick Platt, is a British lawyer who has lived in Moscow for four years at the time the story starts. The book is his explanation to his fiancée about his time in Russia:
"You're always saying that I never talk about my time in Moscow or about why I left. You're right, I've always made excuses, and soon you'll understand why. But you've gone on asking me, and for some reason lately I keep thinking about it - I can't stop myself. Perhaps it's because we're only three months away from "the big day," and that somehow seems a sort of reckoning. I feel like I need to tell someone about Russia, even if it hurts. Also that probably you should know, since we're going to make these promises to each other, and maybe even keep them. I think you have a right to know all of it. I thought it would be easier if I wrote it down. You won't have to make an effort to put a brave face on things, and I won't have to watch you."
Combined with the appearance of a corpse as the book opens - a "snowdrop," a body hidden by the snow that becomes obvious only in the spring thaw - this is perfect foreshadowing for what follows. The reader cannot read a single page without a sense of foreboding, wondering what happened and when, who the corpse is, what Nick did (is he a murderer?), until one is in the middle of a brutally cold Moscow winter with Nick, almost helplessly acting as an accomplice to a crime or two. Nick is not a nice man, it seems, but neither is he evil; he is simply weak.
The source of his weakness is Maria Kovalenko - Masha, as she is called by her friends. In a chance meeting in the subway, Nick rescues Masha and her sister, Katya, from a purse snatcher. Nick is immediately attracted to Masha, even though their meeting is brief. He begins wondering whether she is "the one" from his first sight of her. Why? That he can't seem to explain, though he admires her irony, he says: "She had an air that suggested she already knew how it would end, and almost wanted me to know that too." The fact that she is beautiful certainly helps.
Masha and Katya introduce Nick to their aunt, Tatiana Vladimirovna, an old widow who is a relic of the Soviet system down to her bowl-cut hair - and especially to her lovely apartment, given to her for services to the Fatherland. Tatiana is soon to retire, and is considering moving to a smaller apartment in the country. Masha and Katya ask Nick to help Tatiana with the papers necessary to the apartment swap; and that's where things start to get ugly.
There is a subplot involving a Cossack who seeks financing from Nick's banking and investment clients. Just as we can tell from the beginning that Nick's romance with Masha is doomed, we can see from the outset that the Cossack is basically a crime lord. Does Nick see this from the beginning, or is this so obvious only in retrospect? Does Nick really care? He refers to those days in Russia as a "gold rush," a time when Russia was wide open to both capitalism and crime and the two were indistinguishable. Everything is about money. Indeed, an acquaintance of Nick's, a reporter who fell in love with Russia and has never left, says to him, "In Russia, there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories."
The frigid Moscow winter, as Miller describes it, is an analogy to the frigid principal characters in Snowdrops. This is a dark and depressing novel, a snapshot of a time and place so foreign that it is almost past understanding. The hapless Nick is in love not only with Masha, but with the energy of this new, lawless Russia. Nick can only partake of this energy passively, sadly; he has lost who he is with the melting snow. Nick is himself a "snowdrop."
One doesn't exactly enjoy Snowdrops; it is too dark for that. It combines the Russian bleakness of Anton Chekhov with the English bleakness of Thomas Hardy. But one must admire Miller's writing. The sights and especially the smells; the bite of the cold and the heat of the sauna; the food and the sex are all described sparingly, yet vividly. The plotting is strong, with the story opening up to meet the foreshadowing with precision. It is more assured than one expects a writer's first novel to be.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
I was thoroughly fascinated by this book. I still can't figure out why I liked it so much since the pace of the story was slow for me, but the writing is so perfectly beautiful that it will mesmerize you. The story it written as a letter from an English lawyer named Nicholas to his fiance revealing an indiscretion that even he can't truly explain except to say that he was used by a woman that had bewitched him. Masha sails into Nicholas' life and convinces him to help complete the sale of some property for an older woman. The tale twists and turns between Russian mafia, unethical business men and the women who will steal more than just your credit card after a sexual romp.
Nick seems to be so intelligent and so fact conscious that it at first seems improbable that he could be used in a scam where Masha and Katya (possibly cousins) respond to his loneliness with taking him under their wing in order to help them illegally sell property that is owned by their "aunt". He explains to his girlfriend that he should have seen the scam coming, but couldn't believe that someone might actually take advantage of him. I found it very interesting to read the descriptions of corruption in Russia and how business is actually conducted. I don't know who to compare this story to since I don't think I have ever read anything like it before.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2011
Written as a nostalgic, confessional account by an English expat about a morally dubious stint in Moscow, Miller deftly conjures the atmosphere and 'genius loci' of the Wild East during the 1990s where ostentatious wealth, flash and exhibitionism was (and still is?) on display along with unbridled greed and unscrupulous machinations. Part thriller and part pseudo-memoir, the story is cast through the eyes of the jaded expat who was taken for a ride in more ways than one. Miller's cast of nouveau riche Russians was portrayed as callous, mercenary and predatory - which appears to echo certain common stereotypes, whether fair or not. Without giving too much away, readers who have encountered Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness may wonder if there were too many riffs drawn from the latter. Regardless, the novel is pacy, atmospheric despite being somewhat cliched, and makes for a good quick read.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2011
This book is not a noir. It is not a thriller. It is not even a mystery. You need to read no more than 50 pages to realize something bad has happened to the narrator -- although not too bad because he is back in England.
Snowdrops, instead, is a book about a corrupt, yet seductive, city where everything has a price tag, just about everyone has his hand out, and the strong prey on the weak. It really is an expose in the guise of a novel.
I can only assume this portrait of Moscow is accurate since Miller spent four years as a bureau chief there. The book has just been short-listed for the Man Booker -- which I am sure produced howls from some of the folks who reviewed it for Amazon. All I can say is that the judges got it right.
23 of 30 people found the following review helpful
This book is brilliantly written, interesting and different. It made me want to keep turning the pages, waiting for all the secrets to be revealed, but made me want to turn them slowly enough to really appreciate them. This is the best book I've read in years.
The book is a first person fictional account of a British lawyer's time working in Moscow during the early 2000's. It presents Moscow as a kind of Sodom or Gomorrah, full of scheming prostitutes and murdering Mafiosi; an eastern Wild West that is as exciting and full of possibility as it is lawless.
In this setting, Nicholas, a lawyer in the midst of a nearly-mid-life crisis, falls for Masha, a beautiful Russian who is not what she seems. He follows Masha around almost in a kind of trance, doing whatever she asks simply to remain near her and the decadent Russian lifestyle she embodies.
Nicholas becomes embroiled in Masha's plan to help an old woman swap apartments, never fully understanding what he is getting himself into. At the same time, his work as a lawyer brings him into the center of a large oil deal and into contact with a shady front man referred to as "The Cossack." As the novel draws to a conclusion, Nicholas discovers the ugly, shameful truths beneath the veneer of money and youthful - or wishful - exuberance that characterizes life in Moscow. They are revealed like the dead bodies that are found under the melting snow each spring in Moscow - the snow that coats the city in a layer of pristine white each winter, and then melts away to reveal the dirt, rubbish and corpses beneath. The corpses, nicknamed "snowdrops," are the author's metaphor for this story of deceit (of oneself as well as others) and revelation.
The book is characterized by psychological drama. It isn't full of action in the physical sense, but follows Nicholas's psychological journey from naivete to complicity, accurately detailing his unrequited love for a country and a culture - in other words, a bad case of wannabe-ness. In spite of being brilliantly written, full of vibrant metaphors and a use of the grotesque that rivals the Russian authors who clearly influenced it, the book is engaging and thoroughly entertaining. As a person who generally avoids anything too well-written and prefers action scenes to monologues, I can recommend this book to those who love a good thriller as well as those who like something with a little more literary weight.
Finally, a few criticisms - the book is pretty polished, although not absolutely perfect. The depiction of Moscow and its people is a little overly negative, and doesn't do justice to the main character's love of the place. Anyone who has lived there, of course, will immediately understand, but perhaps others might wonder why anyone would want to live in Moscow. It reminds me of trying to explain to friends and family why I loved Russia while describing in excited detail the horrific state of the public toilets.
A second criticism, or perhaps a warning, would be that for reasons I cannot begin to understand, the first twenty pages of the book are crappy. The writing is mediocre and there is a lot of really awkwardly done translation and transliteration (which might actually be done incorrectly). I very nearly put it down at page 20, and then without warning, somewhere between pages 20 and 30, the book just sort of came alive and went from bad to brilliant.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Moscow at the turn of this century could be a dangerous place: almost anything could be bought or extracted for a price, and many people were, for one reason or another, in on some deal or scheme to get ahead in the business of money, comfort or influence. Life was also fragile, people disappeared without a trace, only to turn up as "snowdrops" during the spring thaw. With his debut novel, SNOWDROPS, AD Miller delves into the unfettered, yet also manipulated, period of early capitalism in Russia that followed the collapse of the Soviet regime. Part crime, part love story, Miller's fast-paced, fluidly written and engaging novel combines these elements within a chilling psychological portrait of an expatriate corporate lawyer, who has been living comfortably in "wild Moscow". Miller's book is on the shortlist for this year's Man Booker Prize.
These are the Russian "gold-rush days", and Nick, Nicolai Ivanovich to the locals, a British lawyer, is caught up in financial and other dealings in more ways than one. Despite slowly realizing that all may not be as it appears with his new girlfriend, Masha, her sister Katya and Tatiana Vladimirovna, their aunt, and warnings from his cynical journalist friend, Steven Walsh, he cannot extricate himself from their influence. Rather, Nick prefers to adopt the popular advice of the day "the less you know, the longer you live".
In his business dealings Nick is as gullible, going with the flow: "Money in Moscow had its own particular habits", he muses by way of explanation and justification for his actions. "Money knew that someone in the Kremlin might decide to take it back at any moment..." Nick writes his story with hindsight, confessing "all, as honestly as I can", to his soon to be wife (he hopes). He admits to her that he was terribly naïve and totally in love with the mysterious Masha. He was blinded by his urge to "find the one", who would take him out of his pathetic early midlife crisis mood. He is still drawn to his life in Moscow, despite everything. Moscow can have that effect on those who have spent time there...
AD Miller evidently knows those effects. His intimate knowledge - as correspondent for The Economist - of Moscow and Russia, its diversity of peoples, and its sociopolitical reality of the time, adds to the story's authenticity and makes the locales more than a backdrop, but rather a lively participant in the unfolding human dramas. While we readers are fully absorbed in the novel's events, sometimes understanding earlier than the protagonist the associations between different people's actions, I could not help also thinking of developments beyond the confines of Russia and the early twentieth century. Many of the issues that Miller touches on are with us, even if in different, more subtle or hidden forms. [Friederike Knabe]
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
A.D. Miller's noir thriller is nearly impossible to put down once started. Moscow, "that city of neon lust and frenetic sin" is skillfully painted in all its contradictions and juxtapositions. It is "a strange country, Russia, with its talented sinners and occasional saint, bona fide saints that only a place of such accomplished cruelty could produce, a crazy mix of filth and glory". Nothing is as it seems in this book and ethics are continually stretched to the limit.
The book is written in the format of attorney Nick Platt's recollection of his time in Moscow as he shares it with his fiancee. Now residing in London, where he is from originally, he recalls the few years he spent as a lawyer in Moscow and how they affected his life. Can his fiancée still accept him and will she still want to marry him once she hears what happened during his time in Moscow? Will she be able to understand his part in the events that unfolded and forgive him? Is he able to forgive himself or is that even important?
Nick is in Moscow during Russia's high-flying times, where makers and shakers easily spend two hundred dollars on a massage, where everyone has a scam and you're part of it in some way, where banks loan millions of dollars to companies on a wish and a dream. It's a strange time in a strange country. "The Russians will do the impossible thing - the thing you think they can't do, the thing you haven't thought of. They will set fire to Moscow when the French are coming or poison each other in foreign cities. They will do it, and afterwards they will behave as if nothing has happened at all. And if you stay in Russia long enough, so will you." This is Nick's predicament. He is caught up in several complex and laborious scams and he searches within himself to see when he first turned the other way. Or did he not see anything coming and get run over by a Mack truck.
The novel begins with Nick rescuing two sisters on the metro - Masha and Katya. They are young, long-legged beauties. Nick is close to forty, feeling his age and seeing his middle expand. Masha is 24 and Katya is 20, just old enough for Nick to enjoy without feeling any guilt. He is especially fond of Masha and together they hit the night life of Moscow and begin a passionate affair; at least it is passionate for Nick. At times, Masha appears to be play-acting and going through the motions but that's okay with Nick who daydreams about a life with her. One day, out of the blue, Masha and Katya ask Nick to help with the legal work entailed in finding their aunt Tatiana a new apartment. Nick agrees and continues with the process even when he finds out that he has been fed a lot of lies.
Nick is also involved in the legal aspects of attaining a huge loan for an oil rigging company. In order for the loan to go through, the company must have its construction completed on time, a certain amount of capital needs to be generated in the future, and of course, there is that unending stack of Russian paperwork and workers that need to be bribed. There's a little problem when the surveyor for the project disappears for a few days and then comes back with a report that everything is clean as a whistle. Then he disappears again. Who can say that this means anything at all? Who can say that it doesn't?
Nick finds himself in a conundrum everywhere he turns. He tries on different realities for size and stretches his ethics like a rubber band. He enters a world where the lure of sin is almost impossible to resist. In Russia, do as the Russians do - but he is not Russian and there is a little voice in his head that tells him `Maybe I should look at this a little differently'.
This is the best kind of literary thriller and page-turner - one that is intelligent, complex and rewarding. There is no deus ex machina at the end and all the pieces work marvelously as they bring the reader to a thrilling conclusion, one that is heart-stopping and heart-breaking.