The Armchair Madcap

Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews

An Exercise in Futility: Simon Montefiore’s Russian Drama, “Sashenka”

Well, guys, I tried to do it – I tried to read that book I mentioned three weeks ago. I gave it as much of a shot as I possibly could, but I didn’t make it past page 168 of Simon Montefiore’s Sashenka, a book that is ostensibly about one woman’s struggles through the rise and fall of Russian communism, but which is actually one man’s struggle to figure out what the hell he wanted to write about in the first place. It’s my understanding that Mr. Montefiore has written a number of non-fiction works about this piece of Russia’s history – and his ability to capture the feel of the time period is certainly masterful – but he struggles to follow the number one rule of writing fiction: show, don’t tell.

Whenever Montefiore has the opportunity to show us a character’s morality or mindset, he tells us in dry narration instead; when he has the opportunity to show a character’s hesitation or reluctance, he tells us in staid dialogue instead; when he has the opportunity to show us Russia falling into riot and revolution, he tells us in long, meandering paragraphs instead.

He has too many characters populating the first chapters of the novel, making it impossible to sympathize with, let alone like, any of them. He has subplot upon subplot involving Jewish businessmen, Rasputin’s inner circle, corrupt policemen, tittering school girls, street urchins… On and on and on. Furthermore, his main character, Sashenka, switches so quickly between two points of view – “I want to be a Bolshevik!” and “Revolution is scary; I want to go home!” respectively – that she feels almost schizophrenic. The only real spark of passion in the novel comes in the form of the romantic cat-and-mouse game played by revolutionary Sashenka and bored police-officer Sagan. It’s such a shame that passion disappears when *SPOILER* Sagan is killed on page 168, and not in a dramatic, heart-wrenching manner. Do you see why I quit on that particular page, now?

It was $3 in the discount bin and I still want my money back.

Perhaps the novel picked up steam after that. After all, I didn’t make it all the way through the rise of communism let alone its fall, so I only experienced a small fraction of Sashenka’s story. Perhaps a new relationship arises out of the ashes of the old to give some drama back to the novel, but I’m not willing to slog through paragraph upon paragraph and chapter upon chapter of saturated narration to find out.

If the reviewers and commenters on the internet are to be believed, Mr. Montefiore is a wonderful author of non-fiction despite his struggles with fiction, and it’s certainly not my intention to sneer at anyone who has actually managed to finish a novel (I’ve been working on one for seven years now, and I’m nowhere near done). Still, this is not a masterpiece and I cannot recommend it.


Since this is such a short post this week, I want to get your all’s feedback on you experience with books like Sashenka: what books have you read recently that you had to fight to get through? Or which ones have you given up on in disgust? In contrast, what books have captured your attention so completely you couldn’t put them down?

10 comments on “An Exercise in Futility: Simon Montefiore’s Russian Drama, “Sashenka”

  1. Heather R
    August 19, 2011

    The only two books i couldn’t finish were Crime and Punishment (UGH) and a book I ended up turning into my college art project. As lowbrow as it is, the Harry Potter books always captured my attention completely on the first few read-throughs. Also, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series is amazing for not letting you go.

    • AnonFleance
      August 19, 2011

      I didn’t get through “Crime and Punishment” either! And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the “Harry Potter” books — I read the last book in less than 24 hours (needless to say, I didn’t eat or sleep…). As for Jim Butcher’s novels, I’ve been meaning to start them. Did you know that a hardcover copy of the first book goes for as much as $300? Guess it’s paperback for me… 😛

  2. Mr. Barker
    August 19, 2011

    The first real book I could not Finish was called “The unredeamed captive” (I apologize for my misspelling, they are sure to be numerous) This book was required reading for my AP US history class in highschool. It was a book that couldn’t make up its mind if it wanted to be a historical narrative, historical fiction, or a text book. Its about a girl whobis kidnapped by native americans in the late 1600’s years later her family finds her married to the chiefs son and she doesn’t want to return. I have no idea what happens in the end. They way each chapeter started follwed the same pattern of the Author narrating a scene setting the stage for his interpretation of the events. And then A laundry list of facts, data, and eveidence would follow. Its the first and only time I’ve seen real foot notes in a NOVEL intended for highschoolers. I lost all respect for the Newberry Awards when I found out years later that it had won it. My final statement is just because its a story filled with fact does not make it an educational read

    • AnonFleance
      August 19, 2011

      What’s sad is that actually sounds like it could have been a good premise…! Hate when good ideas are mismanaged…

      I could probably blanket the world in my list of books that I was supposed to read for school and either skimmed or skipped altogether. Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” would probably win the award for my most hated enemy – I was assigned it for three separate classes across high school and college and gave up on it all three times.

  3. Mr. Barker
    August 21, 2011

    The book I was assigned the most in Highschool was “The Great Gatsby” apparently im one of a small number of.people who finds that this book has not aged well at all

    • AnonFleance
      August 21, 2011

      I suspect more people agree with you than you realize (I certainly do)!

  4. NinjaPenguin
    August 26, 2011

    There haven’t been many books I’ve been unable to finish, but some I have had trouble getting through. One of my favorite books, however, is Scribbler of Dreams by Mary E. Pearson. It is a Romeo and Juliet-esque story that is written beautifully ❤

    • AnonFleance
      August 27, 2011

      I’ll have to give that a shot in the future! 🙂

  5. houzmah
    July 23, 2012

    i also stopped reading when SAGAN died, in france SAGAN is killed on page 268, i really loved the cat and mouse game played between sashenka and him, so when he died, i was like WTF, why did the author killed, i almost felt in love with SAGAN…i was so disappointed that i stopped reading

    • AnonFleance
      July 23, 2012

      I know! It’s been a long time since I read this book, but I still bring it up when people ask about books that I found disappointing. I could have continued to slog through if Sagan had still been there to play his mind games but, alas, it was not meant to be.

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This entry was posted on August 19, 2011 by in Drama, Literature and tagged , , , .


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