The Madonnas of Leningrad – Debra Dean [TSS]

Title: The Madonnas of Leningrad
Author: Debra Dean
ISBN: 0060825316
Pages: 256
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!


  1. Nice review! I’ll definitely check into this. My grandfather was born in Russia (escaped during the revolution), so I have interest that setting.

  2. I’ve never heard of this one, so you’re not the only one. Great review, as usual. I’m stumbling it.

  3. well well.. ain’t it always great to like a book tat u randomly picked?! .. me too loves that !

    and that title .. i like!! i would definitely.. look for it 🙂

  4. So glad to see you enjoyed this wonderful novel, as I did. Your blog is fast becoming my favorite to read each week! You and I seem to have similar tastes in books…thank you for adding to my TBR pile 🙂

  5. Several months ago, I read about this on someone’s blog and now I can’t remember who it was, but I made a mental note to watch out for this book. Now after reading your review, my interest is renewed! Honestly, I’d forgotten about this book. Thanks for reminding me.

  6. I’m so glad that you enjoyed this book. It was one of my Top Ten Reads a couple of years ago. Parts of it are still with me.

  7. I saw the words “siege of Leningrad” and knew I would read this book. I just mentioned in yesterday’s Mailbox Monday post that I like novels that deal with this subject and now I find one! Thank you. This sounds like it’s right up my alley.

  8. Great review Swapna. I really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely one of my favorites of the past year.

  9. Thanks for leaving a link on my blog to this review. Seems we enjoyed the same aspects of the novel. Like you, I don’t give it highest marks (I save those for the absolute best books I have ever read), but I found it overall very good and am interested in Dean’s future works. Glad to find your blog!

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