Book Review - The shortest Russian novel you'll ever read

Friday, August 31, 2012

"The Mirrored World," by Debra Dean. HarperCollins, 243 pp. $25.99

Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky are known for their greatness, though perhaps not for their brevity.

Debra Dean's "The Mirrored World" is much shorter -- not even 300 pages -- and yet it still manages to carry a story from start to finish, complete with mystery, love, life and death.

The protagonist is Xenia, though the story is told from the perspective of Dasha, her cousin. Though seemingly odd, this nod to "Gatsby" generates a distance from Xenia that is necessary to develop the themes of the novel.

In "The Mirrored World," nothing is as it seems. Xenia's marriage to Andrei seems perfect -- two beautiful people finding happiness in each other -- but behind the closed doors they are only able to focus on what they do not yet have.

In perhaps the novel's most important scene, the Empress hosts her annual Imperial Ball, an event where the men don the petticoats and wigs of their wives and the women dress in their husband's clothing. Though once a fun evening, it "had become a tedious obligation and a formidable expense."

Throughout the story, certain characters dress up and play the part of their friends and family members. Others defy the expectations given to them by their society.

"The Mirrored World" is a distorted reflection of eighteenth-century St. Petersburg. On the one side, Dean paints the picture of a traditional marriage at this time: Nadya, Xenia's sister, marries the much older Kuzma Zakharovich, whose fortune would secure her for the rest of her life:

"Nadya was brought round to recognize the advantages in becoming Kuzma Zakharovich's wife. Not the least of the persuasions was the silvered hand mirror he presented to her at the betrothal dinner."

On the other side is the world that Xenia becomes a part of. She married for love; Andrei is a traveling soldier with the Imperial choir. But after a series of tragedies, she vanishes from society, reappearing later dressed in her husband's tattered uniform and recognized as the "Holy Fool of Petersburg."

"The Mirrored World" is a brilliant look at the underbelly of societal expectation, what happens when human emotion and unexpected tragedy overtake the facets of character that are carefully selected to show to the world.

Debra Dean is also the author of "Confessions of a Falling Woman" and "The Madonnas of Leningard."

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