Told through the eyes of Dasha, Xenia's beloved cousin, the novel is related by Dasha as an old woman looking back on her life. She takes us first to when the girls are young and Dasha looks up to her older, dreamy, and distracted, arts-loving cousin, to when the two girls become close. Despite Xenia's social gaffes, she makes a love match in her marriage unlike her poised and elegant sister and she is nurtured by her husband Andrei's great love for her. Dasha seems unlikely to ever marry and Xenia invites her to live with she and her soldier/chorister husband. Although Andrei and Xenia struggle to have a child, when they are finally blessed with a baby, it seems as if the sun shines on their small family and all will be good in their world. But this is Russia, the land of winter, and after two crushing tragedies, Xenia is a husk of herself, grieving and frozen, locked inside her own head and going mad. When she finally comes back to life, she starts giving all of her possessions away to the poor while Dasha tries to stem the tide and save something, anything for themselves. But Xenia can no longer be contained and she disappears into the streets of St. Petersburg only to eventually resurface wearing the ragged remains of Andrei's military uniform and continuing to survive on handouts, sharing her meager finds and alms with all those in need around her.
When Xenia disappears, Dasha becomes the focus and the path of her own life takes precedence in the story. She marries an Italian eunuch from the Russian court and lives with her Gaspari in harmony if not love for several years, continuing to minister to the needy when she can, in her cousin's honor, and continuing always to look for her beloved Xenia. Dasha's odd marriage is never accepted and Gaspari's outsider status at the court allows him to hear much of the labyrinthine inner workings and accurate gossip that the more connected might have been protected or excluded from. And so the reader is treated to a spectacularly exposed view of the royal court.
As in her previous, marvelous novel The Madonnas of Leningrad, Dean has written a gorgeous tale. She has evoked the Russia of the time with the petty cruelties of the court, the uncertainties of the time, the wide gap between the wealthy and the poor, the social structure, especially as it pertained to women and their status, and the turmoil from the streets on up through the ranks. There is a mystical, almost elegaic feel to the narration and the mood is icy and foreboding throughout much of the novel. It is smooth and ethereal but completely engrossing. Xenia remains a hard to know character as she succumbs to her God-inspired madness but her passion for the intangibles that have touched her life shines. Dasha is a less interesting character but is necessary to the narrative, especially once Xenia would have been unable to narrate her own tale. And Dasha herself adds to the wealth that is Xenia's narrative with her love, respect, and care for this otherwordly cousin. The missing time in Xenia's life, that when she is absent from the novel, feeds into the mystery of where she has gone and although her absence is a hole in the novel, Dasha as narrator has no idea where Xenia is so the reader cannot either. Truly if there is any complaint to make about the novel it is that it is too short pushing the reader back out into the light of real world before he or she has finished with the forbidding coldness of St. Petersburg.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.