From Dean (Confessions of a Falling Woman, 2008, etc.), a lightly fictionalized retelling of the life of the Eastern Orthodox St. Xenia, who left her comfortable home in 18th-century Russia to live as a “holy fool” among the poor.
Xenia’s cousin, Dasha, who grew up with Xenia and her older sister, Nadya, narrates Xenia’s history. From an early age, Xenia clearly has an independent spirit. She is an eccentric who cannot help showing her often-passionate feelings about the world around her without restraint. She also has dreams that are particularly vivid and can “see” what others cannot. At one of Empress Elizabeth’s balls, ethereally lovely Xenia doesn’t care that she makes a spectacle of herself over the choral singer Andrei because she knows immediately that she will marry him. It is a love match—Xenia may seem otherworldly, but she also enjoys earthly passion. Dasha does not find a husband because she is plain and enjoys reading—considered a dangerous ability among Russian women of her class. Living with Xenia and Andrei, Dasha witnesses Xenia’s meltdown after her infant daughter’s death. Then Andrei suffers a comic yet tragic death, falling down the steps in Xenia’s gown after attending the empress’ famous cross-dressing ball. Xenia’s first reaction is catatonic grief. Then, although almsgiving is against the law, she starts giving away her belongings to any beggar who asks. When Dasha at last marries an Italian castrato per Xenia’s prediction, Xenia’s wedding gift is her house. Calling herself Andrei and dressing in his clothes, Xenia lives on the streets among the poor. She becomes known as the “holy fool.” Widowed herself, Dasha is influenced by Xenia’s example to open her home to those in need. Xenia even leads Dasha to adopt a child in an underdeveloped plotline.
The novel follows the factual particulars, but Dasha’s narration remains at such a formal remove that readers never experience what makes Xenia tick as a saint or a woman.