Debra Dean, The Mirrored World (HarperCollins, 2012), 245 pages.
Debra Dean, author of TheMadonnas of Leningrad, returns to Russia for her second novel. In The Mirrored World, Debra Dean draws us back to 18th century St. Petersburg (the city’s name for two hundred years before it become Leningrad and the name the city reclaimed after the collapse of the Soviet Union). This was the era when empresses ruled Russia and could order people around for their own amusement, when the nobility enjoyed lavish dances, and the poor struggled to live.
In the background of the royal activities in Russia’s capital, Xenia marries and later gives birth to a baby. The child dies and she is warned that she should never give her whole heart to anything mortal (84). Next, her husband dies. This occurs at the comedic dance which he attended with Dasha as Xenia was still too upset to be seen in public. Upon his death, Xenia begins to give away her possessions to the poor and eventually becomes a “holy fool” and only answers to her deceased husband’s name. Dasha marries (a eunuch) whom she loves but who also dies. Afterwards, she miraculously receives a “son.” Dasha tries to keep an eye on Xenia, but the sightings become fewer and fewer yet her kindness is known far and wide. Miracles are attributed to her work.
I received an advance copy of this book to review and began to read it in 2013, but only got about half way through and I lost the book. I wasn’t really engaged in the story the first reading, but when I moved this summer, I found the book and picked it up and read through it rather quickly last month. The story of Xenia is well told, in a mysterious way as perhaps is the best way to tell the story of one who is held up within the Orthodox Church as a saint. I enjoyed the “mirrored vision” of 18th Century Russia and would recommend this book to others who are interested in history or in just a good story. What makes one a saint? What would happen if we really took to heart Jesus’ command to give all away in an attempt to follow him? Could our heart-breaks be a source of hope for others?