Thank god the font was big and the lines were almost double-spaced.
This story is really about Moscow. The people-characters are just props; the real characters are the city and the weather and the lawless society.
“The characters are flat, stereotypical creatures, but I havent figured out if this is an intended character flaw of the narrator, or if it is the author's intention as an auteur to convey something deeper or so far hidden, or if it just simply represents workmanlike craft, and is what it is.” Thats what I wrote about this book after reading the first few pages. I’ve figured out now that there’s nothing complicated here. It’s not even workmanlike craft, it’s more like the craft of an awkward apprentice.
It’s as if the author, A.D. Miller, who lived in Moscow himself for a few years as a correspondent for The Economist, wanted to think of a story, any kind of story, that he could drop into the set of Russia. This is understandable, since he had lived there and likely wanted to share his experiences. Russia the place is the main character -- the most developed and well described, compared with the people characters. The narrative arc wearily stumbles through the Moscow cold, numbing the reader’s interest, perked up only by energetic bursts of descriptions (most often yet another way to describe how cold it was).
The Moscow cold, the Moscow criminals, the Moscow daily life, the Moscow way of doing things. These are clearly the real main interest of the author, but it seems he felt he needed to create a conventional story that would give him license to provide that backdrop. The girls Masha and Katya are set props, dressing.
Why did the narrator Nick, an ex-pat lawyer, fall so hard for Masha? There is nothing in the story, not a smidgin, to explain it, to make it plausible. Did he fall for her because of her exquisite other-world beauty? She has hard red fingernails, dresses like a prostitute. That’s it? Is it because of the incredibly hot sex and the fiery passion she ignites in him? Don’t know, there are just some vague tepid references to a bit of carnal activity, occasionally slightly exhibitionist. There’s certainly no hint of any intellectual vigour, not in Masha or any of the other characters for that matter, including the narrator. There’s no hint of any meeting-of-the-souls kind of chemistry. And without any of that, the story just isn’t plausible.
The book is ostensibly the narrator relating to his fiancee the story of what happened to him in Moscow, but it is a clumsy artificial device. It is employed half-heartedly and sporadically, and so is all the more intrusive and annoying when it does appear.
The book is a decent start for a first novel, but I am absolutely stymied as to how it came even close for consideration to be on the Booker longlist, let alone the shortlist.