A Review: The Man from St. Petersburg

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I just finished The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett.

I don’t think I’ve been properly frustrated by a novel in a good while. This one did it. It literally changed my demeanor for a good solid day.

First off, the reason I was reading this book was by the advice of the legendary literary agent, Albert Zuckerman, in his book Writing the Blockbuster Novel. It’s a good insight on what the agents, editors, and publishers are looking for in a novel and what they are not.

I usually read non-fiction and the fiction I’ve read is anything from Beowulf to Mark Twain to Tom Clancy to Michael Crichton. Ken Follett has a huge following of his own, but I’ve never read historical fiction. Now, 30 years later, most anything by Tom Clancy would be absolutely considered historical fiction, but at the time it was the Thriller genre, because he was writing in current political environments, not historical. It was simply military thriller scenarios that could have realistically played out in real time, but not so much now.

Follett, being British, writes this novel with stunning accuracy in the cultural day-to-day lives of the British and Russian aristocracies and the day-to-day life of the common peasantry. The only way I know that the political climate that he set up his novel in was accurate, was because I am a pretty ardent student of European cultural and political history. You’ve got to understand the cultural history to understand the political history. I was amazed at how well he intertwined these two histories and made a remarkably believable novel.

In my opinion, this aspect of Follett's book is why this volume, and many of his other works, are absolute mega-blockbuster sellers.

The biggest issue I've had with it was he let me down on the character(s). One thing I've learned in this process is the characters must change. From high and mighty to lowly or lowly to high and mighty. From wealth to disparity or from disparity to wealth. From great strength to weakness, and so forth and so on. I don't think there was a main character in the book who did not suffer from great change.

For example, Lord Walden had everything together. He was an earl and that was as high as one could be in the British aristocracy and not be in the Royal Family. He was also, by standards of other earls, one of the more wealthy earls in Britain at the time, owning five glorious estates, real-estate investments in London and railroad ventures in America and Russia (rail was just coming into full bloom). He still has his wealth near the end, but he entirely lost the largest of the estates to fire; when we started he also had the perfect family, by the end everything he thought he had for a family was essentially dismantled. I point out the mansion fire, because I love those old homes and I’ll be honest, when the fire was started in the library, it greatly disturbed me. Imagine the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC being destroyed by fire.

Lydia, Walden’s wife, was the picture of beauty at 39, but on the inside, she was a moral failure the likes of which you cannot imagine. Her character was bookended by moral failure. The early moral failure I could excuse because she was a mere 18 year old girl messing up, but quite frankly, she let me (the reader) down immensely at the end. Her daughter Charlotte was the picture of innocence and that innocence was savagely taken from her. I’m not talking moral innocence, I’m talking naiveté and just not knowing what life was about for anyone outside of their class. It was hard for me to see Charlotte literally turn into a Marxist before my eyes.

The thing that disturbed my demeanor for a day or two was Lydia. I swear, I had more confidence in the woman than that which was given. One thing Shawn Coyne’s book Story Grid had taught me was that you don’t want to frustrate your reader. Well, it may not have frustrated the mainstream reader, but the book shook my core. I five star reviewed it, but it hurt me. The point Coyne makes is if you frustrate your reader, they may read your novel and love it, but decide “well, if he’s going to write like that, I don’t think I’ll read another one of his novels.” This is exactly where I’m at on Follett. I’m not sure I want to read another one of his novels.

This was a great book, don’t get me wrong. It does every single thing that a great novel is supposed to do and that’s the important thing to remember.