The ravages of age are taking their toll on Marina, an elderly Russian woman. While she cannot hold on to fresh memories, her distant past is preserved: vivid images of her youth in war-torn Leningrad, and the exquisite masterpieces of the Hermitage Museum.
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 way, please. We are standing in the Spanish Skylight Hall.
The three skylight halls were designed to display the largest canvases in the collection. Look up. The huge vault and frieze are like a wedding cake, with molded and gilt arabesques. Light streams down on parquet floors the color of wheat, and the walls are painted a rich red in imitation of the original cloth covering. Each of the skylight halls is decorated with exquisite vases, standing candelabra, and tabletops made of semiprecious stones in the Russian mosaic technique.
Over here, to our left, is a table with a heavy white cloth. Three Spanish peasants are eating lunch. The fellow in the center is raising the decanter of wine and offering us a drink. Clearly, they are enjoying themselves. Their luncheon is light-a dish of sardines, a pomegranate, and a loaf of bread-but it is more than enough. A whole loaf of bread, and white bread at that, not the blockade bread that is mostly wood shavings.
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).
Full Review (554 words).
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 ...
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