BookBrowse Reviews The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

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The Madonnas of Leningrad

by Debra Dean

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

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Gripping, touching, and heartbreaking, the debut of a bold new voice in fiction.

From the book jacket: 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.

Comment: 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".

Overall the reviewers are extremely positive about this first novel; Booklist and Library Journal give it starred reviews, with Library Journal concluding that the "spare, elegant language, taut emotion, and the crystal-clear ring of truth secure for this debut work a spot on library shelves everywhere." The only less than glowing review found was from Kirkus Reviews which gives Dean credit for creating a "respectful and fascinating image of Alzheimer's" but concludes with a somewhat disparaging comment about the last third of the story (which I won't repeat as it has the potential to spoil the plot).

Professional reviewers are, by nature, critical - as such, I feel that some of them, especially the more experienced, who are perhaps a little jaded, consciously keep themselves distanced from the story in order to be able to read it at a critical level. I suspect that most readers who enjoy the first two-thirds of this fascinating first novel, will fly through the last third without a critical thought in their heads!

This review was originally published in April 2006, and has been updated for the February 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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