Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

One of the most talked about books of the year . . . 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. . . .

Seamlessly moving back and forth in time between the Soviet Union and contemporary America, The Madonnas of Leningrad is a searing portrait of war and remembrance, of the power of love, memory, and art to offer beauty, grace, and hope in the face of overwhelming despair. Gripping, touching, and heartbreaking, it marks the debut of Debra Dean, a bold new voice in American fiction.

Being such a huge fan of The Bronze Horseman trilogy by Paullina Simons, I am always very interested when I find a book that has as it's setting Leningrad during the siege during World War II. And then as I start getting closer to actually starting to read the book, the doubts start. Mostly those doubts centre around the fact that I know that there is no other book with a similar setting that will come close to being anywhere near as good as The Bronze Horseman. What I do find though, is that some of these books do have their own place, where they help fill in a bit more of the gaps that there are about what life may have been link in Leningrad during the Siege.

For example, in The Bronze Horseman one of the scenes is where Tatiana and Alexander are walking past the Hermitage and they notice that the museum curator is overseeing the loading of many of the priceless pieces of art into cartons and getting them shipped out of Leningrad so that they will not be damaged during the sustained bombing raids. This book, focuses a lot on that process, and then about what life was like in The Hermitage after all of the art was gone, and the skeleton staff that remained were living in the basement. As Marina goes about her daily work she creates a Memory Palace in her mind, so that even though the walls are bare, with just the empty frames in place, when she walks into any room in the museum she can still 'see' the pictures on the wall in her mind, to the extent that at one point she gives a group of people a tour of some of the highlights using just her memories to feed their imagination.

And yet, this book is also as much about the pressure that a family has to deal with as Alzheimer's sets in ravaging the mind of Marina. They find out things about their mother that they never knew, and in some cases that helps them identify things in their own lives. For example, Marina's daughter Helen is an artist, and yet she never knew where her love of art came from, so it is a huge surprise to her when she finds out that her mother had studied the arts and had been a tour guide in the world famous museum. It helps Helen to piece together a few pieces of her own identity, even while at the same time she understands that her mother is slowly losing her own current identity.

For the most part this book works. The narrative does alternate between Leningrad during World War II and current time America very smoothly, and the sense of desperation and deprivation was adequately portrayed through out the book. Where it did fall down a bit though for me was that there were several things raised that we never got answers for, and there were significant events that were just explained in a paragraph and that was it! For example we find out that Marina's husband had been a Prisoner of War, and there is literally a one sentence explanation of how Marina and he had been miraculously reunited completely by chance at the end of the war.

Despite the inevitable comparisons to The Bronze Horseman, this is actually a much different book, with a completely different focus, and so it is probably unfair of me to constantly compare, but I can't help it!

For the most part this was an enjoyable read. If there weren't those unanswered questions that were left hanging at the end of the book, I would probably have rated this book higher.

Rating 4/5

Other Blogger's Thoughts:

Booking Mama

Out of the Blue
A Life in Books
Lesley's Book Nook


  1. Zeek, have you read The Kitchen Boy? It is the story of what happened to the Romanovs.

    I would love to read more about Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

    And, yes, you should definitely read the second TBH book!

  2. I read this last year. I thought it was sort of so-so. I really liked the story set in Leningrad, but I wasn't sure I liked the story flipping back and forth--I was less interested in the contemporary part of the novel. I think this was her first novel, though, and am looking forward to what else she publishes.

  3. I read this last year. I thought it was sort of so-so. I really liked the story set in Leningrad, but I wasn't sure I liked the story flipping back and forth--I was less interested in the contemporary part of the novel. I think this was her first novel, though, and am looking forward to what else she publishes.

  4. Hi Marg! Thanks for giving me the link to your review. I see what you mean about the lack of clarity about her husband and children. I wish there was more about the POW storyline, too, but it didn't prevent me from loving the book. Would it be okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations?

    Diary of an Eccentric

  5. That's fine! The question about the children is really about how the eldest one was conceived. It was really just glossed over with really no idea about the other party!

    Trying to talk without spoiling too much!

  6. Yeah, that statue scene was a bit odd.

    Diary of an Eccentric