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Source: Review copy from Harper
Rating: ★★★★★

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.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the blog tour for The Mirrored World. To follow the tour, click here.

Book 32 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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.

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“When I go, you must try to bury me beside him,” Nadezhda says.

Marina nods. It would be pointless to argue that neither of them is going to die. Already they move through their days like ghosts, one foot in front of the other, thin as vapor.

No one weeps anymore, or if they do, it is over small things, inconsequential moments that catch them unprepared. What is left that is heartbreaking? Not death: death is ordinary. What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp. Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers. What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world.

(from The Madonnas of Leningrad, page 161)

The Madonnas of Leningrad is a heart-wrenching novel by Debra Dean that takes readers on a journey from the Soviet Union in 1941 to Seattle in the present. Marina worked in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad during World War II, and as the Germans closed in, she and the other museum workers packed up all the paintings and other works of art and shipped them to safety. Empty frames hung on the walls in hopes that the war would end soon, and things would return to normal.

Marina and the uncle and aunt who took her in as a child lived in the museum’s cellar during the siege, and as she worried about her fiancé, Dmitri, who was fighting in the People’s Army, she and the hundreds of others packed in the cellar spent the winter months slowly freezing and starving to death. With the help of Anya, an older museum worker, Marina created a “memory palace” to survive the cold, the grief, and the hunger. She walked from room to room, taking in the empty frames and imprinting in her mind each detail of every painting that hung before the siege.

In the present, Marina is an elderly woman losing her most recent memories to Alzheimer’s. The book takes place over the span of a few days, with her daughter, Helen, arriving to accompany her and Dmitri to their granddaughter’s wedding. Marina’s experiences in Leningrad are shown to readers when she drifts back to the past — something that happens frequently. The memories of the siege are fresh in her mind, and the “memory palace” she used to weather the war helps her deal with her worsening condition.

While most of the book focuses on Marina, readers get a glimpse of Helen’s mid-life struggles to fulfill her dream of being an artist and her realization that she doesn’t really know much about her parents. Dean also shows Dmitri’s strong love for Marina and the sadness he feels as she slips away from him.

…The bond that had first brought them together as children existed whether they spoke of it or not, the bond of survivors. Here in America, a relentlessly foolish and optimistic country, what they knew drew them closer together. She was his country and he hers. They were inseparable.

Until now. She is leaving him, not all at once, which would be painful enough, but in a wrenching succession of separations. One moment she is here, and then she is gone again, and each journey takes her a little farther from his reach. He cannot follow her, and he wonders where she goes when she leaves. (page 119)

The Madonnas of Leningrad is a moving story of love and war, memory and grief, family and survival. Once I started reading, it was impossible to put the book down, and I read all 231 pages in a little more than a day. When I turned the last page, I was emotionally drained yet wished my time with these characters wasn’t over. Dean’s writing is beautiful, and I felt so close to the characters. Although the characters are shown only in two fixed points in time, they are well developed and realistic, and I couldn’t help but love them. Dean’s descriptions of the various paintings are so vivid I could see them in my mind, and she made the hardships of the museum cellar come alive so I could feel the hunger and despair. The shift from present to past through Marina’s worsening Alzheimer’s was seamless, and Dean’s real-life experiences with the disease shine through. (In the acknowledgments, she says her grandparents’ “lifelong love affair and their journey with Alzheimer’s” inspired her.)

The Madonnas of Leningrad is a complex, multi-layered story, and I highly recommend it, even to readers who normally shy away from stories involving war. It is so much more than a war story, and while it’s really sad and a little hopeful, it’s worth the emotional roller coaster ride.

Disclosure:  I borrowed The Madonnas of Leningrad from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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