Summary and book reviews of The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad

by Debra Dean

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

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Book Summary

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.

The ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
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. ...
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BookBrowse Review


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 Members Only (554 words).

Media Reviews

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...

Kirkus Reviews

A thoughtful tragedy that morphs into a tear-jerker in the third act.

Publisher's Weekly

The dialogue around Marina's forgetfulness is extremely well done, and the Hermitage material has depth.

Library Journal

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 Marina’s 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.

Reader Reviews

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 dying ...   Read More


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 patient's ...   Read More

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 in ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

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 research)."

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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