The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

This inspiring story of remarkable endurance proved to be one of the most discussable reads for the Book Club lately. The Madonnas of Leningrad is a poignant tale of one woman’s harrowing experiences during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad in WWII, alternating with her present-day life struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

In 1941, Marina Krasnova is a young museum guide at the magnificent Hermitage Museum. Anticipating a German attack, the museum staff work night and day to pack the priceless masterpieces to be transported to safety. When the bombings begin, the staff and their families seek refuge in the cellars of the museum, and not long after, starvation, disease, and desperation reduce their numbers. To escape the suffering of their daily lives, Marina and her friend, Anya, build in their minds a “memory palace,” burning into their memories each room and the artworks that formerly graced them. As she walks from room to room, Marina sees past the empty gilt frames and sees again the grandeur of each painting– the Rembrandts, the Da Vincis, the Carravagios, and hundreds more. To Marina, they were all part of her life and what sustained her in the darkest days. Amidst the bombings, she continues to hope that she will once again see her beloved Dmitri, the soldier she has fallen in love with and the father of the child she is carrying.

In the present day, Marina, now Mrs. Buriakov and in her 80s, is ravaged by Alzheimer’s. Her memories of her children and recent events are in tatters, but memories of her Leningrad days are as vivid as always. As her faculties continue to degenerate, her mind takes her back to the days of the siege–back to her “memory palace” and the extraordinary paintings and events that defined her life. Her husband and children grow increasingly concerned, and when she disappears one day, it becomes the catalyst for her daughter, Elena’s, search for her own identity and meaning in life, as well as a deeper understanding of her mother.

I think the best part of the novel is the way it jumps in time. Dean seamlessly weaves the past and the present together; there is one point in the novel where Marina is sitting at her granddaughter’s wedding, and before the reader realizes it, Marina has been taken back to Leningrad and watching a different wedding at a different time. Dean is an exceptionally talented writer and it shines through in The Madonnas of Leningrad.

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One Response to “The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean”

  1. Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Radhika R’s Picks | Wake County Libraries "Book a Day" Staff Pick Says:

    […] Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean A story of love, suffering and helplessness. Marina is rendered helpless when she is affected by Alzheimer’s. While she has difficulty remembering her children or grandchildren, she remembers clearly the 40 day siege of Leningrad, and how she overcame it. As a museum docent, she helped to hide countless priceless works of art from the invading Nazis, all the time creating a “memory palace” in her mind in which to cherish their beauty. These memories and those of the works of art she saved are juxtaposed with the present, where she regularly forgets her own granddaughter. A very sad, poignant story of an Alzheimer’s patient and how the caretakers the family members stand by helplessly while their loved one’s mind is slowly shutting down on the immediate present. A very touching read.  Read another review. […]

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