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.
Wednesday, Dec 21: Creation
What did you make this year? Whether something personal, like a song or some art, or a work project, share your process and the end result of your creation.
I worked a lot on my novel, Erasable You, this year. I tend to write like a spider spins a web. I have ideas that I put down and then spin around them. It’s slow going. I’m not the kind of writer who can just sit and bang the whole thing out in one linear process. The name of the school is still up in the air. Its nickname is “East Plastic Jesus” Academy because of a tradition where all the fifth graders go through a kind of rite of passage. There’s a big ceremonial mass, and they each receive a cheap plastic rosary. But I’m not married to that concept…still working on it.
Here then, are the first few pages:
No one had ever accused Annabel DiLuca of being unprofessional. In fact, they often found her quite the opposite, a bit of a stickler. A perfectionist, an if-I-want-it-done-right-I’ll-just-do-it-myself-then kind of person, in short, a pain in the ass. This perfectionism, though it served her well professionally, tended to make her push things too far, and being an impetuous person, Annabel often found herself in the wrong place. Annabel’s shrink, the caterpillar-moustached Dr. Anson Harrington, whom she hadn’t seen in years, had once blamed it on her broken childhood. While her juvenile days had certainly been happy ones, with a loving father and a doting grandmother, her mother had been more or less absent, removed from Annabel’s life by a speeding late-model Chrysler Belvedere on a Saturday afternoon in 1976.
Joanne DiLuca had spent that November afternoon browsing children’s apparel shops in the old section of town where the Italian immigrants had settled, meticulously probing their overcrowded, plastic-covered wares for the right delicately stitched cardigan, something new for Annabel to wear to the family’s Thanksgiving gathering. Joanne cut a fashionable silhouette that day, having adopted Jacqueline Onassises’s sense of style in the early Sixties and followed along through the rest of her short life. That particular day, Joanne was wearing a pink tweed car coat, and, though she was of tiny-stature, she had to turn sideways to get through the narrow the aisles in the tiny shop. The two elderly ladies who worked there, Rose and Mary Marchiano (sisters in law only), looked at her over the rims of their chained spectacles to admire the way Joanne held herself. They thought Joanne was all class, always had been, even when her own mother had brought her in by the hand decades earlier. The way her handbag swung on her wrist, she seemed so young to the two women who spent their days on kitten heels, under high, starched, silvery hair. Indeed, Joanne DiLuca must have her whole life ahead of her, married to that nice DiLuca boy from Maple Street. They remembered Anthony DiLuca from his days as a high school track star; if he hadn’t turned his ankle in the spring of 1955, he might have gone all the way to the Olympics. But he’d done all right in the end, following Old Man DiLuca into the concrete business. That family had really made something of themselves. Old Man DiLuca had made more money than Elvis selling all that rock, and here was little Joanne Petrillo (now DiLuca) living the dream homemaker life. Rose and Mary sighed to each other, thinking of their own children, long grown and out of the house. How nice.
Meanwhile, the Belvedere driver was at a college football stadium, downing beer-after-beer, first from a pony keg at a pre-game tailgate and later from a hawker in the stands. His fate collided with Joanne DiLuca’s on a bridge to suburbia in the waning sunlight of an otherwise perfect autumn afternoon. Annabel ended up wearing the chocolate-colored sweater her mother had purchased not to Thanksgiving, but to her mother’s funeral. Even though the sweater had been in the car when the accident occurred, it was still covered in protective plastic, and thus escaped the wreckage unscathed.
As she grew up, Annabel felt nothing was absolute, that try as she might, the rug could be pulled out from under her at any moment. She tried and tried to overcome the feeling, desperately clutching to control every situation, but in the end it never worked out. The more she sought control, the less she found she had, and things inevitably spun away from her.
* * * * *
On the last Saturday before the start of the school year, Annabel and Matt had attended the EPJ Academy faculty picnic like a perfectly normal couple. It was a civil gathering on the grounds of a once-grand local mansion, long since abandoned, but modernly available for a modest fee-by-the-hour to the public for affairs such as these. Her boss, Helen Stilte, EPJ’s interim-head-librarian, had been there with her husband, a boring blowhard of a civil engineer who had recently retired, but was currently a consultant to the nuclear power industry. They all mingled so politely, Edgar Stilte smiling at Annabel with a mouthful of yellow teeth that reminded her of horse corn and hayrides. They had chatted and dined on fresh fruit and finger sandwiches. At moments, Helen clung to Annabel’s arm, whispering bits of gossip about this person or that, and Annabel had felt discomfort at being introduced to her new co-workers through her supervisor’s filter. She had tried a few times to break away from Helen, hanging with staff members and teachers who were closer to her own age, but then she’d notice Helen had quietly snuck up on her, listening to her every word over the heads of the people sitting between them. Annabel looked across the veranda at Matt to see whether he had noticed Helen’s odd behavior, but he was oblivious, holding a cigarette in his left hand awkwardly, despite the fact that he smoked cigarettes regularly, and talking to the lacrosse coach over there on the patio. Matt was wearing a rumpled tweed sport jacket that he had gotten at Good Will for less than most people spent on a t-shirt. His tie was too thin to be fashionable, a leftover caramel-colored knitted thing from the 1980s. His long brown hair was pulled back into a short ponytail at the base of his skull. He held what looked like yet another fresh bloody Mary, self-medicating, Annabel guessed. This wasn’t his crowd either.
The only person Annabel had felt an affinity with so far was Pam, the headmaster’s very plain secretary. Pam had gone to middle school with Annabel, and the two hadn’t seen each other from then until the day, four months ago, that Annabel had come to EPJ for her interview. Pam had married her high school sweetheart, a medical equipment salesman who traveled around the country, and was, by all accounts, the nicest guy in the world. Though honestly, most of that accounting came from Pam herself, since no one on the faculty had actually met the man.
Annabel finally settled in an uneasy plastic folding chair at a plastic garden table with a group of blonde-haired twenty-something women dressed in varying shades of pastel dresses. Annabel felt as if she were sitting in the middle of a preppy ad for Lily Pulitzer or J Crew, and she tried not to feel self-conscious about her own frizzy brown hair or the dress she was wearing, a vintage 1940’s black and white A-line number that she had thought looked so good that morning, though now she wasn’t so sure. She shifted from time to time in her seat, uncrossing and then re-crossing her legs at the ankles, hoping to get comfortable in a place where she didn’t feel she quite belonged.
It was not so much that Annabel felt out of place at the picnic. She was just wrestling with her accustomed awkwardness when it came to acclimation. She felt as if she had transferred to a new high school in her junior year, and all the cliques had already been set. There were the popular kids, now coaching the sports at EPJ; the intellectuals, those who had been teaching at the school for years and years; the administrative staff, kind of the go-between clique; and Annabel, the librarian’s drone, floating around the hive, just looking for a place to fit in. Annabel sensed with dread the familiar disconnect, the feeling that she couldn’t relate, couldn’t really understand the enthusiasm this group of people had for their jobs in general. They were all so gung-ho about the community of the school for which they were working. Annabel wanted desperately to feel that strongly about it. To feel that strongly about anything.