Published by Harper Perennial
Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina's grip on the everyday. And while the elderly Russian woman cannot hold on to fresh memories—the details of her grown children's lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild—her distant past is preserved: vivid images that rise unbidden of her youth in war-torn Leningrad.
In the fall of 1941, the German army approached the outskirts of Leningrad, signaling the beginning of what would become a long and torturous siege. During the ensuing months, the city's inhabitants would brave starvation and the bitter cold, all while fending off the constant German onslaught. Marina, then a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum, along with other staff members, was instructed to take down the museum's priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, yet leave the frames hanging empty on the walls—a symbol of the artworks' eventual return. To hold on to sanity when the Luftwaffe's bombs began to fall, she burned to memory, brushstroke by brushstroke, these exquisite artworks: the nude figures of women, the angels, the serene Madonnas that had so shortly before gazed down upon her. She used them to furnish a "memory palace," a personal Hermitage in her mind to which she retreated to escape terror, hunger, and encroaching death. A refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . . .
Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad is a lyrical and elegant novel about Marina, a young tour guide of the Hermitage Museum during the siege of Leningrad during World War II and her present day battle with Alzheimer’s. The novel shifts smoothly between Marina’s life in Leningrad battling starvation and Russian winter and her present day battle with Alzheimer’s while at her granddaughter’s wedding, comparing and contrasting the two life experiences.
During the siege Marina creates a “memory palace”, remembering each and every painting once held in the museum in an effort to keep her own sanity during the war. In present day Seattle, Marina has trouble remembering every day details but can recall intimate details regarding her memory palace. Dean does an excellent job comparing the past with the present and describing the masterpieces of the Hermitage Museum. While we never do learn how Dimtri, Marina’s childhood friend/fiance/husband, reunited with Marina in Germany, this short novel does not disappoint.
This was book was first published in 2007, but I read Dean’s more recent work The Mirrored World first. Both novels have a lyrical, magical quality about them and it is so easy to get lost in the world of these short novel. Dean is a fantastic writer, I look forward to reading more from her in the future.