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.
Book Review: ★★★★★★
This is a book that I received from the publisher as an advance copy read. I think the original offer was initiated due to my love of the previous novel of Dean’s I had reviewed – The Madonnas of Leningrad. Consequently, I was looking forward to this work to see where Dean goes from here. Now, having read the book, I find myself with mixed responses — and for some of those responses I’m not even really sure why. The story is a fascinating topic — set in Russia; a setting I always love to read about. Dean’s love of the Russian people and place resonates in this book as much as it did in her previous work. And there is certainly no doubt that Dean’s passion for the Russian world resonates strongly throughout the piece.
But from the beginning there is something disconnected about the entire story. And I found this disconnected feeling quite frequently distracting. What I can’t tell is if it is due to the approach in Dean’s writing — or the fact that the primary character of the book is an individual about which there appears to be very little known from the beginning.
The narrator is the first thing I struggled with. The story is about St. Xenia, of Russia; but the whole thing is narrated in the voice of her cousin. This is one reason that the book has a disconnected feeling. Everything is told in the third person removed perspective — making it hard for the reader to connect with the primary character. Adding to that is the fact that I found the narrator’s character and story more compelling than that of Xenia, herself. I wanted to hear more about the narrator’s life, marriage, and the impossible world that Dean created around her. But since that wasn’t Dean’s primary focus, I found myself frustrated in that respect. And yet — if these stories has been broken in two — and not told in tandem — they would have each made a fantastic story. As it was I felt like they kept competing for dominance with each other.
Another thing that I struggled with was the light weight feel of the story over all. I felt like this was more of a fairy tale — with little background detail, and almost no insight into the character’s inner thoughts and motivations. It just never developed much beyond the very basic. But I am not sure if this is Dean’s fault — so much as that there is very little known about Xenia from the start — as I stated earlier. I was expecting a significant confrontation between the Tsar and Xenia herself, as a representation between the deep religious culture, and the political climate of the age in Russia. But I felt like that was only alluded to, and never fully developed. Once again leaving me frustrated.
Over all, this book provided a great summer read. It moves quickly, and gives some of the feel of the Russian culture. It can be read quickly — but it doesn’t demand a lot of effort on the part of the reader.
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The truth is that there are no good men, or bad men,’ he said. ‘It is the deeds that have goodness or badness in them. There are good deeds, and bad deeds. Men are just men – it is what they do, or refuse to do, that links them to good and evil. The truth is that an instant of real love, in the heart of anyone – the noblest man alive or the most wicked – has the whole purpose and process and meaning of life within the lotus-folds of its passion. The truth is that we are all, every one of us, every atom, every galaxy, and every particle of matter in the universe, moving toward God. — Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram