Though we may try to tilt the universe with prayers and spells, medicines, and every precaution, in the end the rain falls equally on the just and the unjust. What can be done but to face this mystery squarely and go on?
(from The Mirrored World, page 86)
Having loved The Madonnas of Leningrad, I couldn’t wait to read Debra Dean’s latest novel, The Mirrored World, based on the story of St. Xenia, the Holy Fool of St. Petersburg, Russia. Dean’s writing is beautiful and reminds me why I love to read historical fiction.
The Mirrored World is narrated by Daria, Xenia’s younger cousin, as an old woman looking back on her life. The novel opens in 1736 during the reign of Empress Anna Ioannovna, and Xenia, her older sister Nadya, and their mother move in with Daria’s family after being displaced by a fire. The three girls grow up together, and Daria and Xenia are as close as sisters. The family is well-to-do, and the girls hobknob with royalty and are expected to marry well.
While Nadya honors the family with perfect poise and manners and submits to an arranged marriage to a much older man, Daria is plain and clumsy and not likely to make a match. Rather than leave St. Petersburg to live with her parents, Xenia insists that Daria live with her and her husband, Andrei, a court singer with whom she fell passionately in love at first sight, the idea being that the couple will introduce Daria to some eligible young men.
Xenia has always been a little different, a dreamer of sorts, but she also has visions. She predicted her sister’s marriage…and the tragedy that tears her world apart and causes her to withdraw from the world. When Xenia is helpless in bed, Daria takes care of her. When Xenia emerges from her room and begins giving away all of her possessions to the poor — including the clothes off her back — and leaves them nearly penniless, Daria does her best to pick up the pieces.
I absolutely loved The Mirrored World, and Dean’s writing drew me into 18th century St. Petersburg from the first page. I’ve never read about the Russian royals, so I was intrigued by Empress Anna, especially the stories about the Ice Palace and the Metamorphoses Ball. Dean made the court, with all its scandals, intrigues, and lively people, come to life. I started reading this book on my morning commute, and before I knew it, I was more than halfway through — and really upset that I had to wait until my lunch break to pick it up again.
Although I grew to care about Daria and felt like I really got to know her, I wish the focus would have been more on Xenia. She nearly disappears from the pages at the exact moment when her story becomes most interesting. However, I understand why Dean made Daria the narrator, as readers see Xenia through the eyes of someone who both saw her flaws and truly loved her. Also, I’m sure reading the story from Xenia’s point of view would have been very confusing and disjointed when she starts going mad. I also thought the book ended too soon, and not simply because I wasn’t ready to let the characters go.
The Mirrored World is a book I’ve thought a lot about since finishing it. While Xenia goes to extremes in terms of serving the poor, her story really gives you something to think about in terms of how tied we are to our possessions. Xenia’s story lends some mystery to the novel, but it also touches upon the themes of family, duty, and especially love. Both Daria and Xenia find deep, passionate love, which affects them both in different ways. Serving God is central to a story about a saint, but the book isn’t about religion. The Mirrored World shows how the path to sainthood is never easy, but it certainly is fascinating.
Disclosure: I received The Mirrored World from Harper for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.