Is there any setting more exotic—or enticing—than 18th-century Russia, populated as it is by finicky empresses, brutish tsars and decorated soldiers of the royal court? Best-selling author Debra Dean, previously heralded for The Madonnas of Leningrad, imagines the life of Russia’s beloved “holy-fool” Xenia, breathing life into the now-revered woman who became the patron saint of St. Petersburg.
Narrated by Xenia’s devoted cousin Dasha, The Mirrored World follows the two girls beginning with their society debuts. Xenia—not known for following the rules—falls head over heels for an alluring singer in the Empress’ Imperial Choir, Colonel Andrei Petrov. Soon, though, Xenia’s devotion to her husband is taken over by an obsession to have a child. When her daughter passes away not one year into her life, Xenia, crushed by grief, slowly begins to remove herself from society. The Colonel responds by lavishing his attentions on the bottle rather than on his wife; Xenia cannot be comforted nor cajoled into making an appearance at the royal court. One evening, her second sight hints at her own death, but it is Colonel Petrov whose time is up, leaving Xenia widowed and childless at the age of 26.
Readers are left to debate whether it is madness stemming from grief or simple destiny that leads Xenia to wander the streets of St. Petersburg clothed in her husband’s tattered military uniform, doling out her worldly possessions. Surprisingly, amid all this drama it is the quiet portrait of Dasha that is the high point of The Mirrored World. While most will be drawn to the fictionalized account of one of Russia’s most holy saints, it is the all-too-human story about the woman behind the saint that truly captivates.