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.
This is just the sort of book that I love to be able to recommend at BookBrowse because it combines a strong storyline, with a heavy dollop of fact, in this case the history and contents of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad/St Petersburg. The characters themselves are obviously important to the tale, but the essence of the story is the nature of memory itself - as Marina's descent into Alzheimer's causes her to return to the 'memory palace' she had constructed in her mind during the the German assault on Leningrad 60 years before, while her memories of the recent past flicker in and out, "like a switch being turned off". (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).
USA Today - Carol Memmott
Classic war films and novels recount bloody battles and soldiers' violent, noble deaths. But in her debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean offers a sensitive portrayal of the non-combatants who suffer on the home front: Those people whose scarring wounds are caused by hunger, sickness, loneliness and deprivation. The novel is based on actual events surrounding Russia's efforts to save the Hermitage and its artwork during the 900-day siege of Leningrad, which began in 1941
Seattle Times - Ellen Emry Heltzel
Memory and the imagination are the gifts that keep on giving in "The Madonnas of Leningrad," an exceptional debut novel by Seattle writer Debra Dean. In this bifurcated story, an aging Russian immigrant living in Seattle loses her grip on the present and yields to the past, specifically the most intense period of her life: the years of deprivation and fear known as the siege of Leningrad. To her family, the old woman is succumbing to dementia. But to Marina Buriakov, the reward for her forgetfulness is the opportunity to revisit, room by room and painting by painting...
A thoughtful tragedy that morphs into a tear-jerker in the third act.
The dialogue around Marina's forgetfulness is extremely well done, and the Hermitage material has depth.
Starred Review. Spare, elegant language, taut emotion, and the crystal-clear ring of truth secure for this debut work a spot on library shelves everywhere.
Booklist - Allison Block
Starred Review. Dean eloquently describes the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Raphael, but she is at her best illuminating aging Marinas precarious state of mind: "It is like disappearing for a few moments at a time, like a switch being turned off," she writes. "A short while later, the switch mysteriously flips again."
Historical Novel Society (UK)
This superb first novel by author Debra Dean tells the story of Marina, a young tour guide at the Hermitage Museum during the siege of Leningrad in World War II.
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by by H. A. A story of hope and beauty I have never written a book review before. However, I disagree so strongly with the last review, I felt compelled to write. Furthermore, I must point out that the last reviewer did not read the story closely because Marina saved a woman from... Read More
Rated of 5
by bob Remarkable little book "The Madonnas of Leningrad" is remarkable. In this her first book, Debra Dean gives her readers a historical novel plus a portrait of a family member going through the horrible disease of Alzheimer's. Mrs Dean presents us with not only the... Read More
Rated of 5
by Rowan Ayers Something missing In spite pf the raves on the book covers and among some of the reviewers, I found this a depressing and sometimes bewildering book, with the various cuts from the war years to the present, with catalogue type references to former artworks dropped... Read More
Debra Dean worked as an actress in the New York theater for nearly a decade before
opting for the life of a writer and teacher. She lives with her husband in
Seattle, Washington. She says that the inspiration behind her first novel
was a PBS series on the Hermitage Museum in 1995. The following day she recorded
in her journal, "I was particularly
struck by one incident which might make a story (even a novel, but for the
The story she referred to was about a former staff
member of the Hemitage who, like nearly 2000 other staff and their families, spent the
winter of 1941 living in the basement of the museum while the Nazis besieged the
city. Millions of pieces of art had been evacuated but, as a pledge that
the art would return, the frames had been left in place. It is said that this
former guide gave tours of the empty museum to visitors, describing each
painting so well that visitors could almost see them.
For more about this, see the interview at BookBrowse.
Set in Italy during the dramatic finale of World War II, Russell's ambitious and engrossing novel tells the little known story of how Italian citizens saved more than 43,000 Jews during the last 20 months of WWII.
Funny, heartbreaking, and alive with a potpourri of eccentric and irresistible characters, Broken for You is a testament to the saving graces of surrogate families, and shows how far the tiniest repair jobs can go in righting the worlds wrongs.
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