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Excerpt from The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Madonnas of Leningrad

by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2007, 256 pages

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"Katie, Andrei's girl. To Cooper."

Katie is her granddaughter. But who is Cooper? You'd think she'd remember that name.

"We met him at Christmas," Dmitri says. "And again at Andrei and Naureen's a few weeks ago. He's very tall." He is waiting for some sign of recognition, but there is nothing. "You wore that blue dress with the flowers, and they had salmon for supper," he prompts.

Still nothing. She sees a ghost of despair in his eyes. Sometimes that look is her only hint that something is missing. She begins with the dress. Blue. A blue flowered dress. Bidden, it appears in her mind's eye. She bought it at Penney's.

"It has a pleated collar," she announces triumphantly.

"What's that?" His brow furrows.

"The dress. And branches of lilac flowers." She can call up the exact shade of the fabric. It is the same vivid robin's-egg as the dress worn by the Lady in Blue.

Thomas Gainsborough. Portrait of the Duchess of Beaufort. She packed that very painting during the evacuation. She remembers helping to remove it from its gilt frame and then from the stretcher that held it taut.

Whatever is eating her brain consumes only the fresher memories, the unripe moments. Her distant past is preserved, better than preserved. Moments that occurred in Leningrad sixty-some years ago reappear, vivid, plump, and perfumed. In the Hermitage, they are packing up the picture gallery. It is past midnight but still light enough to see without electricity. It is the end of June 1941, and this far north, the sun barely skims beneath the horizon. Belye nochi, they are called, the white nights. She is numb with exhaustion and her eyes itch from the sawdust and cotton wadding. Her clothes are stale, and it has been days since she has slept. There is too much to be done. Every eighteen or twenty hours, she slips away to one of the army cots in the next room and falls briefly into a dreamless state. One can't really call it sleep. It is more like disappearing for a few moments at a time. Like a switch being turned off. After an hour or so, the switch mysteriously flips again, and like an automaton she rises from her cot and returns to work.

All the doors and windows are thrown open to the remaining light, but it is still very humid. The airplanes buzz and drone, but she has stopped flinching when she hears one directly overhead. In the space of a few days and nights, the planes have become part of this strange dream, both tangible and unreal.

Sunday morning, Germany attacked without warning. No one, not even Stalin it seems, saw this coming. No one except Director Orbeli, the head of the museum. How else to explain the detailed evacuation plan that appeared almost as soon as news of the attack came over the radio? On this list, every painting, every statue, nearly every object that the museum possesses, was numbered and sorted according to size. Even more astonishing, wooden crates and boxes were brought up from the basement with corresponding numbers already stenciled on their lids. Kilometers of packing paper, mountains of cotton wool and sawdust, rollers for the paintings, all these appeared as if preordained.

She and another of the museum's tour guides, Tamara, have just finished removing the Gainsborough from its frame. It is not one of her favorites. The subject is a pampered woman with powdered hair rolled and piled ridiculously high, and topped with a silly feathered hat. Still, as Marina is about to place the canvas between oiled sheets of paper, she is struck by how naked the figure looks out of its frame. The lady's right hand holds her blue wrap up protectively over her breast. She stares out past the viewer, her dark eyes transfixed. What Marina has always taken to be a vacant-eyed gaze looks suddenly sad and calm, as though this woman from a long-ago ruling class can envision how her fortunes are about to change again. Marina says to Tamara, "She looks a little as though she could see into the future."

The foregoing is excerpted from The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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