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Originally published Friday, September 7, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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'The Mirrored World': the clash of faith and reason in 1700s St. Petersburg

In her new novel "The Mirrored World," author Debra Dean vividly re-creates the St. Petersburg of the 1700s in a story of a tormented saint and her devoted cousin. Dean reads Tuesday at Third place Books in Lake Forest Park, Wednesday at Seattle's University Book Store, Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co., Friday at the Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island and Saturday at Village Books in Bellingham.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Debra Dean

The author of "The Mirrored World" will appear at these area locations:

• At 7 p.m. Tuesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Free (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com).

• At 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Bellevue branch of the University Book Store. Free (425-462-4500; www.ubookstore.com).

• At 7 p.m. Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. Copresented with Image Journal. Free (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

• At 12:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, at the Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island (www.eagleharborbooks.com). Reserved seating for this lunch event; call 206-842-5332.

• At 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, at Village Books in Bellingham (360-671-2626; www.villagebooks.com).

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In her excellent second novel, "The Mirrored World," Debra Dean has composed a resonant and compelling tale from 18th-century Russia, based on the historically true story of Xenia, later Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg.

In "The Mirrored World" (Harper, 256 pp., $25.99), Dean, author of the critically acclaimed debut novel "The Madonnas of Leningrad" (2006), tells her tale through the eyes of Xenia's adoring younger cousin and lifelong intimate, Dasha. Dasha reflects on her life and notes that even harder than renouncing material possessions is giving up "those possessions which are immaterial — the griefs and fears, my reason which I have prized beyond measure, the memories that feel like the sum of me. I am not a holy fool who can give these up."

Dasha's distinction, between the value of her reason and the value of the renunciating holy fool, gives tension to the story of how Xenia's family came to live with hers on a terrible night in 1736 when a raging fire in St. Petersburg destroyed 2,000 homes. This simple detail and others like it sweep the reader away to a time when "Petersburg was ... muddy and raw and shadowed by forest, and at night one might still hear wolves."

When the girls in the family are "brought out" into society, Xenia's older sister is married off to a hideous but rich old widower with many children, and Xenia marries Andrei, a young singer in the Empress' choir, for love.

Dasha describes these quick successes as deep losses: "Though marriage was the end towards which we'd been unspooling since birth, I was stunned by the arrival of it. There is no word in the language to denote being orphaned of sisters by marriage."

When Andrei dies only a few years into the marriage, Xenia loses her mind to grief, and soon after goes missing. Meanwhile, Dasha marries another court singer, one of the castrati from Italy. She too is widowed, and doubly bereaved by Xenia's absence. Dasha searches for her and finds Xenia in rags, a "holy fool" giving comfort to the poor seeking alms in front of the church.

Dasha's love for Xenia never wanes, and she provides a sort of home base for her mad, peripatetic cousin. Xenia makes that home a refuge for the misfits and unfortunates she sends to Dasha.

Dean's writing is superb; she uses imagery natural to the story and an earlier time. For example, the young Xenia and her chorister are so infatuated and oblivious to all around them that they "banked like billiard balls off the other dancers." Their conversations are "studied like egg whites" by their guardians.

Dean resurrects this beloved saint in Russian history who cared for the poor, juxtaposing the crudest poverty and extravagant displays of wealth in a mesmerizing, spare style. The gross social inequality is a vivid setting for the immanent love and poignant spirit of compassion in those who stay connected to the poor and the mad in ways that have social relevance today.

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