MLA Gold Award Site

Reading guide for The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Madonnas of Leningrad

by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2007, 256 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Introduction
In this sublime debut novel, set amid the horrors of the siege of Leningrad during World War II, a gifted writer explores the power of memory to save us... and betray us.

Questions for Discussion
  1. The working of memory is a key theme of this novel. As a young woman, remembering the missing paintings is a deliberate act of survival and homage for Marina. In old age, however, she can no longer control what she remembers or forgets. "More distressing than the loss of words is the way that time contracts and fractures and drops her in unexpected places." How has Dean used the vagaries of Marina's memory to structure the novel? How does the narrative itself mimic the ways in which memory functions?

  2. Sometimes, Marina finds consolations within the loss of her short-term memory. "One of the effects of this deterioration seems to be that as the scope of her attention narrows, it also focuses like a magnifying glass on smaller pleasures that have escaped her notice for years." Is aging merely an accumulation of deficits or are there gifts as well?

  3. The narrative is interspersed with single-page chapters describing a room or a painting in the Hermitage Museum. Who is describing these paintings and what is the significance of the paintings chosen? How is each interlude connected to the chapter that follows?

  4. The historical period of The Madonnas of Leningrad begins with the outbreak of war. How is war portrayed in this novel? How is this view of World War II different from or similar to other accounts you have come across?

  5. Even though she says of herself that she is not a "believer," in what ways is Marina spiritual? Discuss Marina's faith: how does her spirituality compare with conventional religious belief? How do religion and miracles figure in this novel? What are the miracles that occur in The Madonnas of Leningrad?

  6. A central mystery revolves around Andre's conception. Marina describes a remarkable incident on the roof of the Hermitage when one of the statues from the roof of the Winter Palace, "a naked god," came to life, though she later discounts this as a hallucination. In her dotage, she tells her daughter-in-law that Andre's father is Zeus. Dmitri offers other explanations: she may have been raped by a soldier or it's possible that their only coupling before he went off to the front resulted in a son. What do you think actually happened? Is it a flaw or a strength of the novel that the author doesn't resolve this question?

  7. At the end of Marina's life, Helen admits that "once she had thought that she might discover some key to her mother if only she could get her likeness right, but she has since learned that the mysteries of another person only deepen, the longer one looks." How well do we ever know our parents? Are there things you've learned about your parents' past that helped you feel you knew them better?

  8. In much the same way that Marina is struggling with getting old, her daughter, Helen, is struggling with disappointments and regrets often associated with middle-age: her marriage has failed, her son is moving away, she may never get any recognition as an artist, and last but not least, she is losing a life-long battle with her weight. Are her feelings of failure the result of poor choices and a bad attitude or are such feelings an inevitable part of the human condition?

  9. In a sense, the novel has two separate but parallel endings: the young Marina giving the cadets a tour of the museum, and the elderly Marina giving the carpenter a tour of an unfinished house. What is the function of this coda? How would the novel be different if it ended with the cadets' tour?

  10. What adjectives would you use to describe The Madonnas of Leningrad? Given the often bleak subject matter - war, starvation, dementia -- is the novel's view of the world depressing?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Girl in the Blue Coat
    Girl in the Blue Coat
    by Monica Hesse
    Set in Amsterdam in January 1943, Monica Hesse's young adult novel, Girl in the Blue Coat, ...
  • Book Jacket: Everyone Brave is Forgiven
    Everyone Brave is Forgiven
    by Chris Cleave
    I've always been interested in the history of the Blitz, the period of intense aerial raids of ...
  • Book Jacket: Saving Montgomery Sole
    Saving Montgomery Sole
    by Mariko Tamaki
    Understanding identity is one the most important parts of adolescence. For some teenagers, those who...
Win this book!
Win The 100 Year Miracle

50 Copies to Give Away!

The 100 Year Miracle is a rich, enthralling novel, full of great characters.

Enter

Book Discussions
Book Jacket
Spinster
by Kate Bolick

A bold, original, moving book that will inspire fanatical devotion and ignite debate.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
    by Phaedra Patrick

    In a poignant and sparkling debut, a lovable widower embarks on a life-changing adventure.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Alaskan Laundry
    by Brendan Jones

    A fresh debut novel about a young woman who moves to Alaska and finds herself through the hard work of fishing.

    Read Member Reviews

Members review books pre-publication. Read their opinions in First Impressions

Word Play

Solve this clue:

I I A Sign O T T

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.