Debra Dean has written a wonderful historical novel, which I think, is even better than her first, The Madonnas of Leningrad, which I had trouble getting through. This one, The Mirrored Word, I could not put down, and read in about two days.
It tells the story of Russia’s St. Xenia, who lived during the reigns of Elizabeth, Paul III, and Catherine the Great. She has a normal childhood, though her father is killed in war, which is when she comes to live with her cousin. The two bond closely, and are brought into the society of the Russian court. Xenia falls in love with one of the court’s musicians, and after a few tragic events, begins to slip away from the material world.
Dean does a wonderful job of walking the fine line between madness and holy inspiration, as Xenia leaves everything behind to live among the outcasts, with her cousin Dasha always looking out for her.
The novel was written in beautiful, etherial prose. It reminded me of a cross between Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book and Sena Jeter Nasland’s Abundance, both of which were also amazing reads. I also liked that it was a look into a historical period that we don’t often see in Western literature, the Imperial Courts of 18th Century Russia.
I can’t say enough good things about this book, but I will say this: I have had a REALLY hard time finding something good to read in this year of 50 Shades and Hunger Games, something interesting, with compelling characters and plot, that felt nourishing to my brain as well. The Mirrored World completely took me there, and away to another place and time.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides was an audiobook that I really enjoyed. Sure, it doesn’t have the snappy, shocking subject matter of his smash hit, Pulitzer-winning Middlesex, but it is full of great characters and the same touching tragicomic prose that we have come to expect from Eugenides.
Many other reviewers have recounted the plot, so I will not bother to get into the details here. Mostly it involves a love-triangle between Madeline Hanna, child of wealth and priveledge and two guys who are not, Mitchell Gramaticus and Leonard Bankhead, all of whom have just graduated from Brown in 1982. We then follow the three of them over the next year as they try to figure out their relationships with each other and what the next steps in their lives might be.
I found the characters genuine, despite the litany of esoteric references to authors and ideas that don’t get much play outside the academic world. The book isn’t about those references, and I think there’s really only one spot where the narrative gets bogged down with them, but overall, the action keeps moving. There were times when I laughed out loud, and other times when I gasped at the twist that the story had taken.
In addition, I found David Pittu’s reading of the novel to be a wonderful experience. I wish more audio books were this lively. He did a wonderful job of changing voices for different characters, and really bringing them to life.
The ending of the novel may be less than satisfying for some readers, but for me, the only disappointment, was that the story ended too quickly.