Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Book Review: The Mirrored World by Debra Dean

What is it like to see someone you know become a saint--a holy fool for Christ? How does that transformation influence you? Debra Dean tells that story in her new historical novel, The Mirrored World. According to the publisher:

The bestselling author of The Madonnas of Leningrad returns with a breathtaking novel of love, madness, and devotion set against the extravagant royal court of eighteenth-century St. Petersburg.

Born to a Russian family of lower nobility, Xenia, an eccentric dreamer who cares little for social conventions, falls in love with Andrei, a charismatic soldier and singer in the Empress's Imperial choir. Though husband and wife adore each other, their happiness is overshadowed by the absurd demands of life at the royal court and by Xenia's growing obsession with having a child—a desperate need that is at last fulfilled with the birth of her daughter. But then a tragic vision comes true, and a shattered Xenia descends into grief, undergoing a profound transformation that alters the course of her life. Turning away from family and friends, she begins giving all her money and possessions to the poor. Then, one day, she mysteriously vanishes.

Years later, dressed in the tatters of her husband's military uniform and answering only to his name, Xenia is discovered tending the paupers of St. Petersburg's slums. Revered as a soothsayer and a blessed healer to the downtrodden, she is feared by the royal court and its new Empress, Catherine, who perceives her deeds as a rebuke to their lavish excesses. In this evocative and elegantly written tale, Dean reimagines the intriguing life of Xenia of St. Petersburg, a patron saint of her city and one of Russia's most mysterious and beloved holy figures. This is an exploration of the blessings of loyal friendship, the limits of reason, and the true costs of loving deeply.

Debra Dean is telling the story of a true Orthodox saint, Xenia of St. Petersburg, wonder-worker and fool for Christ, intercessor for "employment, marriage, the homeless, for fires, for missing children, and for a spouse".  Dean uses a first person narrator, Xenia's cousin Dasha, to tell this story. I suppose a believer in the communion of Saints and in the whole notion of sainthood and sanctity reads this story differently than one who does not believe in such people and goals. As I read Dean's novel, I noticed that Dasha functions like a lens for us to adjust our sight and see Xenia as she is--radically sane and not mad at all. Xenia, and Dasha to some extent, has realized the true goal and end of life, which is not to remain focused on this world and our comfort in it, but to seek Godliness and heavenly realities.

Dasha does not go as far as her cousin, but by the end of the novel, she has taken up many of the generous and selfless actions of the saint: she has opened her home to a group of cast-offs of her culture: homeless vagrants, former dancers, and other poor people. She still worries about how long the money will last--but then an inheritance comes--and she protects and supports Xenia. Dasha has been transformed as much as she has been by her recognition of her own failure to love as she should have when her husband (a castrati) dies. At first Dasha tries to hinder Xenia; then she tries to help her in spite of herself; finally she accepts the holy woman as she is.

Xenia, however, has taken the more radical approach, totally giving herself to love, selling all she has, living among the poor in the streets, and even laboring unknown to help build a cathedral, carrying bricks up the ladders at night for the men to work with the next day. Xenia makes it possible for Dasha to have a son, adopted from a mother who dies in the street.

Set against the backdrop of the decadence and opulence of the Romanov reigns of the Empresses Anna, Elizabeth, and Catherine (and of the Emperor Peter), Dean's novel often glitters with the twisted excesses of a court at leisure--mascarade balls that enervate; elaborately cruel jokes that punish rebellious courtiers; capricious whims that turn lives upside down. That background should help even the unbelieving reader to see that Xenia and Dasha have chosen the better part.

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