The Mirrored World by Debra Dean

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Two lives entwined in sainthood. 

From the Back Cover: St. Petersburg, 1736. Dasha and Xenia are cousins and devoted friends growing up in the shadow of royal society. On the night they make their debut at court, Xenia falls madly in love with a charismatic singer in the empress's imperial choir. They marry and settle into a contented family life.

But on a snowy winter night, tragedy shatters their dreams, plunging Xenia into an abyss of grief. Pulling away from everyone, including her dear friend, she begins giving away her possessions to the poor. Then one day she disappears...until eight years later, when Dasha hears rumors of a soothsayer and healer in St. Petersburg's slums, dressed in a ragged military uniform, who answers only to her husband's name.

Told in Dasha's compelling voice, The Mirrored World vividly captures a darkly glittering world of imperious empresses, ice palaces, holy fools, and Italian castrati—a world of unparalleled extravagance for the few and desperate squalor for the multitudes. What causes one privileged young woman to cross that divide, to give up all her possessions and become one of the homeless people whom she has served? Is it devotion or delusion? The novel illuminates the blessings of friendship, the limits of reason, and the costs of loving deeply.

My two cents 

I haven't read anything set in Russia since Anna Karenina, which is a book I loved since I first read it. Set in 18th century St. Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great, there was a vague familiarity in the beginnings of the book. With my excitement growing over the setting of the stage, naturally I was even more excited for the meat: the story of St. Xenia and why she is much revered in Russia.

(!!Sorry, spoilers in this one!!)
The story is told from the viewpoint of her cousin Dasha. We follow them through childhood, through marriage then adulthood -- parallel lives of two women in the upper crust of St. Petersburg. Xenia falls madly in love with Andrei Feodorovich, who is well placed in court as part of the imperial choir; they marry and adore each other ... until his tragic death (which is ironically prophesied by Xenia). 

The heartache is too much for Xenia to bear and she becomes unhinged. Giving away all her worldly possessions including the very clothes on her back, she starts taking in people from the streets, and eventually she flees society and starts roaming the city in her husband's military uniform and answering to the name Andrei Feodorovich. Going "where she is needed," word reaches Dasha of Xenia's miraculous deeds including prophecies of the current reign.

Dasha, meanwhile, is left the house and becomes virtually destitute. She makes an unlikely match with an Italian musico whom she eventually learns to love (I found this quite fascinating/horrifying: castrato were eunuchs, men who made the ultimate sacrifice so that they may retain their heavenly prepubescent voices). Like Xenia, she too loses her husband. She continues life with a constant eye out for Xenia.

***
I read with anticipation because of the promise of a grand setting and an even grander story. But I was a underwhelmed with this book in general. 

I found that Xenia's story lacked the depth that I craved, especially since she should have been the focal point. Since this was told from Dasha's viewpoint, it makes it difficult to get into Xenia's mind. I appreciated her family history but wanted to know what made her tick as a saint, not as a madwoman. She came across to me more as a woman unhinged by the death of her husband. Where did her prophecies come from? How did she know where to go where needed? Stories of saints always highlight that pivotal moment where one is given illumination on their calling -- what was St. Xenia's? (It didn't help that I also got distracted by Dasha's own love story, which I found so much more fascinating.)

While the backdrop is a huge come-on, especially since there is reference to Catherine the Great, we are afforded only glimpses and not much explanation of the political machinations, the place of women, and the history of the time. It felt a little hodgepodge to me yet still held my interest.

The title, what is it supposed to mean? A mirrored world: literal, because of the Russia's glittering architecture? Metaphorical, because of the strange mirroring of Dasha and Xenia's lives? I can only speculate but that would be too much for my mind to take ... and the fact that I can't seem to form a very coherent review is probably a sign that the story didn't come together for me.

Verdict: A retelling of the life story of St. Xenia through the eyes of her cousin, Dasha. An underwhelming affair despite its rich backdrop of 18th century St. Petersburg and because of a mere skimming of characters which could otherwise have been fascinating.

Debra DeanAbout Debra Dean

A native of Seattle, Debra Dean worked as an actor in New York for nearly a decade before becoming a writer. She lives in Miami and teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University.

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Check out the rest of the tour here.
I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours/publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

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10 comments:

  1. as we know about nothing really on Saint Xenia, I believe the author did a great job at filling the gaps. I thought her choice of narrator was very smart to precisely try to imagine what could have happened - Emma, Christian Orthodox myself. And it is such a 'book of fresh air' to read HF on orthodox saints, highly unusual indeed

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    1. I don't know anything about her which is probably why I was expecting something more ...

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  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book for the tour.

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    1. Thanks for having me, as always, Heather :)

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  3. I also loved Anna Karenina and (sadly) I agree with you about the reasons this story was not as good as we might have hoped. It's too bad, because I thought the setting and the idea to imagine the life of a saint was original and had a lot of potential.

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    1. It's probably unfair to compare this Anna Karenina, very hard to live up to that one :)

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  4. Oh I felt the same way! I was underwhelmed as well.

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  5. I hadn't thought of the mirror in relation to Xenia and Dasha's lives...that makes sense to me...I didn't have a lot of background for this one so the things that bothered you were probably over my head. I look forward to learning a lot more about this time and place. Enjoyed your review :)

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    1. I'm probably reading too much into all this metaphor :) hahaha! Thanks for coming by Peppermint (btw .. definitely a lot of names :))

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