Author: Debra Dean
Genre: Fiction (Historical / Russia / St. Petersburg / 18th Century / Nobles / Marriage / Madness / Sainthood / Cousins)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (8/28/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Did I finish?: Oh yes, inhaled this one!
One-sentence summary: The life of the 18th century Russian saint, Xenia, as told by her cousin.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's quite pretty -- but I don't think it captures the novel's story.
I'm reminded of...: Sandra Gulland, Kathryn Harrison, Elizabeth Loupas
First line: Yes, this was her house many years ago, when she was still Xenia.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like Russian hist fic or royal hist fic -- this tale of semi-nobles and icy Russian landscapes is marvelous.
Why did I get this book?: I've heard nothing but great things about Dean's previous novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, so I couldn't pass this one up.
Review: I have a soft spot for saints. Novelists who tackle the life of a saint -- what they might have been really like -- automatically endear themselves to me, and I was drooling with anticipation over this book. Happily, Dean didn't disappoint, and this brisk little novel has the lush extravagance I wanted from a historical novel featuring royalty as well as the more mundane details of everyday life.
Beginning in the 1730s, the story is told by young Dasha, who is mesmerised by her older cousins, Nadya and Xenia. While Nadya is cold and cruel, making a flawless debut into St. Petersburg society, Xenia is dreamy, impulsive, and impractical -- and yet, she makes a successful love match. When tragedy strikes, Xenia's wild exuberance manifests as a discomforting disregard for herself, her property, and her place in society.
I loved this book from the first page -- Dean immediately sucked me in with her sweet narrator, Dasha, and her complicated cousins. Dean juxtaposes the real cruelties of life -- heartbreak, disappointment, loss -- against the historical ones of the era -- like the Empress' cruel mock marriage of her young jester to an old maid that required them to spend their wedding night naked on a bed of ice in a massive ice palace.
What else should I squee about? I raced through this book because I didn't want to leave Dasha, Xenia, and even Nadya, and I was fascinated -- and horrified -- at this look at royalty. (That Empress Anna -- she was a cruel one!) Dean's writing style is effortless, a little pretty, a little detailed, so that mood and place are evoked easily.
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