Book Review: 2011 Short Listed: A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops

SnowdropsRating: 3.5
A Novel by A. D. Miller
2010 / 288 Pages

The Setup: A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops is an intensely riveting psychological drama that unfolds over the course of one Moscow winter, as a young Englishman’s moral compass is spun by the seductive opportunities revealed to him by a new Russia: a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical dachas and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets – and corpses – come to light only when the deep snows start to thaw – Snowdrops is a chilling story of love and moral freefall: of the corruption, by a corrupt society, of a corruptible young man. It is taut, intense and has a momentum as irresistible to the reader as the moral danger that first enchants, then threatens to overwhelm, its narrator. (from the hardcover edition)

This review originally appeared on Opinionless on 9/21/2011

Nick Platt is a 40-something British lawyer specializing in corporate affairs who finally finds himself on the precipice of marriage. There’s just one problem. Nick feels the need to explain to his bride to be about his “lost” years, a period of time spanning roughly four years in which he lived in Russia and worked primarily in Moscow. Bad idea Nick, bad, bad, bad. Credit the guy for wanting to be honest, and wanting a fresh start, free from lies and secrets with his new partner for life, but seriously, would a person really sit down and write a two hundred and eighty-eighty page explanation in the form of a well constructed, could possibly be nominated for a Man Booker Award novel, to anyone for anything? It doesn’t seem likely.

For future reference Mr. Platt, here are some much shorter alternatives you could try when attempting to talk about the past. For your convenience, each of these could fit on their own single Post-It note sized scrap of paper:

Mind your own f’n business and stop snooping through my stuff.

I love you. That should be enough.

I did some stuff I’m not proud of. Why do you keep asking about it? It makes me wonder what YOU’RE hiding.

Here’s what I remember about Russia: it was cold.

I’m sorry…sorry that you keep asking about that time. You do know what happened to the last person who poked into my past, right?

Still, even though the framework for the story being told in debut novelist A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops is quite preposterous it does manage to quickly suck the reader in by fully immersing them in a foreign culture. The strongest pieces of the novel in fact all hinge on the expert attention to detail that’s given to explaining what’s it’s like to live in Moscow from day to day. How accurate are Miller’s representations? I couldn’t say, but they do make for a fascinating read.

There are some other very good things at work within the pages of Snowdrops as well. Somehow protagonist Nick Platt, the man spilling his guts to his fiancée utilizing an expertly constructed narrative and pacing without ever having attended even a single creative writing class, manages to be the least interesting of the characters that are introduced. There’s a next door neighbor who’s desperate to find his missing friend. There’s a pair of Russian sisters that Nick rescues in a Metro station that may or may not be using him for their own subtly nefarious reasons. There’s an old woman who is desperate to move from Moscow and spend her final days far from the city in peace and tranquility. There are a few shady businessmen who want to sell some oil that may or may not be on the up and up. Almost no one is “good” and the grey areas that they all inhabit are what make them each uniquely shine.

The problems however, and oh yes there are problems, stem from the novel labeling itself as a moral thriller. Does Nick do some bad things? Sure. Is it thrilling? Not so much. Is it all highly predictable? Sadly yes. The novel gets bogged down in the very cultural stereotypes that as a reader you thought it might attempt to twist so that they were cast in a different, if not more illuminating, light. For all the time spent building complex and interesting characters, in the end Snowdrops quickly tears it all down and delivers an ending that matches the reader’s best first guess and how everything will eventually play out.

In fact, I confidently I put forth this challenge. If you’re going to read the novel, once you reach the 1/3 mark, roughly ninety-six pages in, stop and write down how you think it will end. Seal your answer in an envelope marked “Top Secret” Clue style and do not open it until the very end. I’d be shocked if you somehow managed to be far off with your assumptions.

It doesn’t take a master detective to realize that sometimes when you have little in the way of evidence to go on, yet still you possess the nagging suspicion deep in your guts that somehow it was Colonel Mustard (that bastard!) in the Library (book nerd) with the Candlestick (power outage) that against the odds, you can be right, that can turn out to be way things truly went down.

Like many things in life, when it comes to this particular novel, you have to take the good with the bad. Here they present themselves in equal abundance. Forming a final opinion on Snowdrops isn’t as easy as it would first appear to be, and ultimately that’s the piece that makes reading it a worthwhile endeavor. If no two snowflakes are exactly alike then perhaps no two reader reactions to Snowdrops will perfectly align either.


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