If there is someone out there who doesn’t have a soft spot on the bookcase for The Madonnas of Leningrad? If there is and it’s because you haven’t read it okay---However you really need to get to it.--- but if it’s because you didn’t like it…? Then what the heck?
One of my favorite reading surprises of a few years ago (Was it 2007 maybe?) was The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. I had not heard much about it prior to publication but when it came into the store I was intrigued and needed to read it right away. After that it was my great pleasure to put it into the hands of many customers.
Dean’s new novel, The Mirrored World, like Maddonas is set in Russia.* This time we are taken to St. Petersburg in 1736 where Dean tells us the story of St. Xenia. Also known as The Fool For Christ, Xenia was canonized in 1988. She had devoted herself to the betterment of the poor throughout St Petersburg.
In the novel, Dean uses a fictional narrator, Dashenka, to take us through Xenia’s story. They come together as girls when a fire devastates St Petersburg and 2,000 homes are destroyed. Dashenka’s family takes in Xenia, her sister and her Mother. (Is any of this based on fact? I don’t know. I have not researched Xenia so I’m going with Debra.) The two girls grow up close and happy. Eventually the time comes for all three girls to enter society. One finds happiness, one finds money and one finds despair and they all find melancholy. When tragedy comes everything changes in ways no one can foresee. Their lives as women are not what their girlhoods trained them for.
Dean’s use of a narrator works well in The Mirrored World. Dashenka is the reader, the thinker in the family and the fact that she is a female as well immediately sets her as an outsider. Her intellectual curiosity coupled with her devotion to Xenia allows us to trust her observations and opinions. Dashenka has no ax to grind, nothing to gain by elevating Xenia or tearing her down. The plot, the setting of 18th Russia and the many overlaps into the imperial court also fit nicely into the grand storytelling tradition of using a narrator.
The Mirrored World was such a pleasure to read. I adore how Debra Dean writes. It’s an overused description but I have to say that Dean has a great turn of phrase. You get lulled into the novel, you're enjoying every minute and WHAM! You are stopped dead in your tracks by how Dean phrases something.
Dean has the knack of brevity down as well. Her words are carefully chosen to perfectly fit the time period, the mood, the characters and to do their job where the plot is concerned. I could certainly stand for her to be the kind of writer who puts out a book a year!
*In between The Madonnas of Leningrad and The Mirrored World came the short story collection, Confessions of Falling Woman. Obviously I didn’t read that book.