This book starts in the upper classes of the Russian aristocracy in the latter days of the reign of Empress Elizabeth in the mid 1700's and through the reign of Catherine the Great. Whilst the reader is exposed to some of the key historical events and culture of that time, really the story is much narrower than you might otherwise expect. While other authors might be tempted to fill the pages with what are undoubtedly fascinating details about the glamourous life of the upper classes, Dean is careful to provide the reader with just enough to colour the book, but not so much that the reader loses track of exactly what it is that this book is about.
The book opens with three young women who are about to make their debut into society. Nadya, Xenia and Dasha are on the lookout for husbands. For Nadya, there is marriage to a much older man, Dasha is left for all intent and purpose on the shelf, and for Xenia there is an all consuming love match with Colonel Andrei Feodorovich Petrov. We see Xenia fall in love and then deal with the disappointments and tragedy that life brings her way through the eyes of her cousin and companion Dasha.
It is those tragedies which push Xenia out of what is perceived to be normal for a lady of her class and time and that prompts her to begin the acts of charity that she in the end was known for, and which in due course lead to her canonisation as a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Whilst I did enjoy this book by the end, there is a pacing issue in my opinion. The book started really slowly especially as the author matches Nadya and Xenia off with their respective spouses, leaving Dasha to find her match much later in life. We are given small glimpses into the gift of foresight that Xenia displays but even then it was really only once she took the definitive steps towards becoming the religious fool after the tragedies of her life that I felt as though I was thoroughly engaged in the story. Given that the book is actually quite short the fact that at least the first half of it is quite slow means that there isn't enough time and space for this reader to recover from that slow beginning.
While I do understand why it would have been quite difficult to have Xenia as our narrator through the 'fool' section, I do wonder if the book would have worked better if we had of had more insight into Xenia as the main character rather than viewing her through the eyes of a third party, in this case her cousin Nadya. There were also sections in the book where the focus shifted from Xenia to Nadya's own relationships which was an interesting choice on the part of the author.
I have no doubt that when the author comes out with her next book (hopefully still set in Russia) I will still be interested in reading it because Dean is a good writer. She has a lovely voice and turn of phrase. This book just didn't meet my admittedly high expectations.
Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for my copy of this book.
The critically acclaimed author of The Madonnas of Leningrad ("Elegant and poetic, the rare kind of book that you want to keep but you have to share" --Isabel Allende), Debra Dean returns with The Mirrored World, a breathtaking novel of love and madness set in 18th century Russia. 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 that recounts the unlikely transformation of a young girl, a child of privilege, into a saint beloved by the poor.
If you are interested in reading this book, we are giving away a copy of it over at Historical Tapestry.
I read this book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.