Title: The Madonnas of Leningrad
Author: Debra Dean
Release Date: March 14, 2006
Genre: Historical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5
Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina’s grip on the everyday. An elderly Russian woman now living in America, she cannot hold on to fresh memories—the details of her grown children’s lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild—yet her distant past is miraculously preserved in her mind’s eye.
Vivid images of her youth in war-torn Leningrad arise unbidden, carrying her back to the terrible fall of 1941, when she was a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum and the German army’s approach signaled the beginning of what would be a long, torturous siege on the city. As the people braved starvation, bitter cold, and a relentless German onslaught, Marina joined other staff members in removing the museum’s priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, leaving the frames hanging empty on the walls to symbolize the artworks’ eventual return. As the Luftwaffe’s bombs pounded the proud, stricken city, Marina built a personal Hermitage in her mind—a refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more…
I don’t really know what inspired me to pick up The Madonnas of Leningrad. I was at the library, in a hurry because my husband was waiting outside in the car. I made a quick run over to the “New Releases/Popular Titles” shelf. Because it was a Saturday, it was pretty picked over, but this small novel caught my eye, and I decided to take it home on an impulse. I didn’t know what it was about or even what genre it was, but I loved the title.
And now? Now I am so glad I took a chance on The Madonnas of Leningrad. (And how have I not heard about this book before? I think I’m the only one.) It’s a short book, to be sure, but inside is a wonderful and moving story about Marina’s struggles in the past (the siege of Leningrad) and in the present (Alzheimer’s).
Prior to the novel, I knew enough about the siege of Leningrad to know that it was horrific, but the book puts a new face on the struggle. Through Marina, the reader is exposed to the appalling conditions in which people were forced to live while the Nazis were trying to take the city during World War II. It’s not until you read a novel like this, whether fiction or not, that you really begin to comprehend what people must have had to deal with. However, I also liked that the struggle wasn’t the focus of the novel. While the siege of Leningrad deserves novels, history books, etc. written solely about it, those aren’t books I’ll be reading because they would probably be depressing. The Madonnas of Leningrad isn’t like it; it’s sad, to be sure, but it manages to keep the reader’s spirit high. It’s not a burden or a weight.
I think the best part of the novel is the way it jumps in time. Dean seamlessly weaves the past and the present together; there is one point in the novel where Marina is sitting at her granddaughter’s wedding, and before the reader realizes it, Marina has been taken back to Leningrad and watching a different wedding at a different time. Dean is an exceptionally talented writer and it shines through in The Madonnas of Leningrad.
This is a great novel that I think anyone would enjoy. It’s easy to read and beautifully written; definitely pick this one up if you are debating on it like I was!