The bestselling author of The Madonnas of Leningrad returns with a breathtaking novel of love, madness, and devotion set against the extravagant royal court of eighteenth-century St. Petersburg.
Born to a Russian family of lower nobility, Xenia, an eccentric dreamer who cares little for social conventions, falls in love with Andrei, a charismatic soldier and singer in the Empress's Imperial choir. Though husband and wife adore each other, their happiness is overshadowed by the absurd demands of life at the royal court and by Xenia's growing obsession with having a child—a desperate need that is at last fulfilled with the birth of her daughter. But then a tragic vision comes true, and a shattered Xenia descends into grief, undergoing a profound transformation that alters the course of her life. Turning away from family and friends, she begins giving all her money and possessions to the poor. Then, one day, she mysteriously vanishes.
Years later, dressed in the tatters of her husband's military uniform and answering only to his name, Xenia is discovered tending the paupers of St. Petersburg's slums. Revered as a soothsayer and a blessed healer to the downtrodden, she is feared by the royal court and its new Empress, Catherine, who perceives her deeds as a rebuke to their lavish excesses.
In this evocative and elegantly written tale, Dean reimagines the intriguing life of Xenia of St. Petersburg, a patron saint of her city and one of Russia's most mysterious and beloved holy figures. This is an exploration of the blessings of loyal friendship, the limits of reason, and the true costs of loving deeply.
Debra Dean's The Mirrored World attempts to shed light on the life of Xenia of St. Petersburg, an renowned eighteenth-century mystic and "fool for Christ," canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988. Little is known of the particulars of Xenia's life, other than following the death of her husband, she supposedly gave all her wealth to the poor and took to the streets of St. Petersburg wearing her late husband's military uniform. Dean approaches Xenia's life through the eyes of Dasha, a fictional younger cousin, and the result is as much or more Dasha's story as it is Xenia's, and more of a rumination on the complexities of faith and female friendships than a fictional accounting of a legendary figure's life.
Spanning the reigns of Elizabeth to Catherine the Great, as the daughters of lesser nobles -- not extravagantly wealthy but not quite poor -- cousins Dasha and Xenia are uniquely positioned to observe the political tumult of the age and the stark contrast between their society's "haves" and "have nots." From the moment Xenia joined Dasha's family household, her gentle spirit captured her young cousin's loyalty. Xenia is perhaps best described as cerebral -- an aficionado of the arts and music, more concerned with the soul than the economics of being a young woman in the eighteenth century, and therefore in many respects a commodity on the marriage market. With no marriage prospects, Dasha becomes attached to Xenia's household, and it is through her eyes that we witness the euphoria of her cousin's courtship and love match, the heartbreak of losing a child, and the greatest blow -- the loss of her spouse, the pivot point which changes the course of Xenia's life forever.
I've long been fascinated with Russian history, and was eager to read Dean's take on Xenia and life in Russia during the turbulence and excesses of the eighteenth century. The Mirrored World is a slim volume, elegant in its economy, with flashes of lovely prose, but ultimately lacking in substance -- the characterizations I'd hoped for feel ultimately as ethereal as Xenia's legend. Part of the issue is expecting Xenia's story from the cover copy, and getting more of Dasha's -- and while she has her moments (her unconventional love story, marriage to the Italian eunuch musico broke my heart!), her main purpose is as a reflection for her unconventional cousin, the one family member who, despite her doubts, remained loyal.
Dean does an excellent job contrasting the excesses of the Russian court with the heartbreak and spiritual life that Xenia (and to not quite as radical an extent Dasha) chooses to embrace. The mirror imagery sprinkled throughout the novel is particularly effective, especially as a reflection of truth and the unseen principles of faith the women ultimately find comfort in as their lives progress. An oft-times tantalizing glimpse into a lost world and an enigmatic figure whose life and legacy have resonated through the centuries, ultimately The Mirrored World left me wanting more, as it is thought-provoking but all-too-brief introduction to St. Xenia.