In her second novel (after The Madonnas of Leningrad), Dean returns to Russia to reimagine the intriguing life story of St. Xenia, as seen through the eyes of the fictional narrator, Dashenka. A terrible fire in 1736 in St. Petersburg forces a young Xenia; her sister, Nadya; and their mother to seek refuge in Dasha’s childhood home. The girls grow up together and are ushered into society the same year. Soon after, Xenia falls in love with Col. Andrei Petrov and the two wed. Dasha is not so lucky, but is kindly welcomed into Xenia’s house, where she witnesses Xenia unravel, first over her difficulty in conceiving, then the deaths of her only baby and husband. When an unstable Xenia begins to relinquish her worldly possessions, Dasha becomes concerned, and Xenia suddenly disappears, only to resurface years later as a saint to the poor—much to the chagrin of the royals. For those familiar with the story of St. Xenia, this is a gratifying take on a compelling woman. For others, Dean’s vivid prose and deft pacing make for a quick and entertaining read. Agent: Marly Rusoff. (Sept.)
Xenia, a patron saint of St. Petersburg, is the inspiration for this melancholy novel depicting the lives of three girls in the 18th-century "Venice of the North." Nadya marries an older suitor and lives a stuffy, bourgeois life. Dasha, the narrator, marries a musico, an Italian eunuch who performs in the Imperial choir. Their life is unconventional and sad. Xenia marries Andrei, a handsome officer who sings in the same choir. Their grand passion ends abruptly with his death in a drunken fall. In her grief, Xenia becomes a Holy Fool living on the streets and ministering to the poor and afflicted. VERDICT Dean made a skyrocketing literary debut with The Madonnas of Leningrad and follows up with a meditative spiritual saga that honors its subject with an artful recreation of Xenia's era. Subtle period details and dramatic facts of the 18th century enliven this fictional biography though the stories move along at a stately processional pace. [See Prepub Alert, 3/5/12.]—Barbara Conaty, Falls Church, VA
From Dean (Confessions of a Falling Woman, 2008, etc.), a lightly fictionalized retelling of the life of the Eastern Orthodox St. Xenia, who left her comfortable home in 18th-century Russia to live as a "holy fool" among the poor. Xenia's cousin, Dasha, who grew up with Xenia and her older sister, Nadya, narrates Xenia's history. From an early age, Xenia clearly has an independent spirit. She is an eccentric who cannot help showing her often-passionate feelings about the world around her without restraint. She also has dreams that are particularly vivid and can "see" what others cannot. At one of Empress Elizabeth's balls, ethereally lovely Xenia doesn't care that she makes a spectacle of herself over the choral singer Andrei because she knows immediately that she will marry him. It is a love match--Xenia may seem otherworldly, but she also enjoys earthly passion. Dasha does not find a husband because she is plain and enjoys reading--considered a dangerous ability among Russian women of her class. Living with Xenia and Andrei, Dasha witnesses Xenia's meltdown after her infant daughter's death. Then Andrei suffers a comic yet tragic death, falling down the steps in Xenia's gown after attending the empress' famous cross-dressing ball. Xenia's first reaction is catatonic grief. Then, although almsgiving is against the law, she starts giving away her belongings to any beggar who asks. When Dasha at last marries an Italian castrato per Xenia's prediction, Xenia's wedding gift is her house. Calling herself Andrei and dressing in his clothes, Xenia lives on the streets among the poor. She becomes known as the "holy fool." Widowed herself, Dasha is influenced by Xenia's example to open her home to those in need. Xenia even leads Dasha to adopt a child in an underdeveloped plotline. The novel follows the factual particulars, but Dasha's narration remains at such a formal remove that readers never experience what makes Xenia tick as a saint or a woman.
“Transporting readers to St. Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great, Dean brilliantly reconstructs and reimagines the life of St. Xenia, one of Russia’s most revered and mysterious holy figures, in a richly told and thought-provoking work of historical fiction.”
“Dean’s novel grows more profound and affecting with every page.”
“Love affairs, rivalries, intrigues, prophecy, cross-dressing, madness, sorrow, poverty—THE MIRRORED WORLD is a litany of both the homely and the miraculous. Intimate and richly appointed, Debra Dean’s Imperial St. Petersburg is as sumptuous and enchanted as the Winter Palace.”
“THE MIRRORED WORLD explores the mysteries of love and grief and devotion. Against a vivid backdrop of eighteenth century St. Petersburg and Catherine the Great’s royal court, the woman who would become St. Xenia is brought fully to life. Is there a more imaginative, elegant storyteller than Debra Dean?”
“With evocative, rich prose and deep emotional resonance, Debra Dean delivers a compelling and captivating story that touches the soul. Truly a wonderful read.”
"Love affairs, rivalries, intrigues, prophecy, cross-dressing, madness, sorrow, povertyTHE MIRRORED WORLD is a litany of both the homely and the miraculous. Intimate and richly appointed, Debra Dean’s Imperial St. Petersburg is as sumptuous and enchanted as the Winter Palace."
“In her excellent second novel, THE MIRRORED WORLD, Debra Dean has composed a resonant and compelling tale. . . . Dean’s writing is superb; she uses imagery natural to the story and an earlier time.”
“In Debra Dean’s skilled hands, history comes alive. . . . Though the world she creates is harsh and cold at times, it is the warmth at its center— the power of love — that stays with you in the end.”