THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD by Debra Dean
Publisher Wm. Morrow, March 2006
A wonderfully spare and elegant novel in which the 900-day siege of
Leningrad during World War II is echoed by the destructive siege against the
mind and memory of an elderly Russian woman suffering from Alzheimer's. The
novel shifts between two settings: 1941 Leningrad, when the city was
surrounded by German troops, and the present-day, as Marina, who had been a
docent at Leningrad's Hermitage Museum during WWII, prepares for the wedding
of her granddaughter off the coast of Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. THE
MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD is first and foremost an eloquent tribute to the
beauty and resilience of memory, especially as contrasted to the
incomparable devastation that comes with its loss to Alzheimer's.
The Hermitage houses many of Europe's greatest treasures, from Greek and
Roman sculpture to masterpieces from the Renaissance and the Dutch Baroque
period, to some of the greatest paintings of the impressionists. In the Fall
of 1941, the collection's very existence was threatened by the looming
German invasion. As German troops tightened their grip on the city, Marina
and her colleagues scrambled to evacuate the hundreds of thousands of
priceless pieces of art from the former Tsarist Palace. As they did so, they
committed the masterpieces of art to memory, creating for themselves and for
future generations what they called a "Memory Palace."
The novel shifts between the present and Marina's past almost seamlessly. In
the present, Marina is slowly losing her grip on reality. She has trouble
deciphering between what is happening at the wedding, and events that took
place decades ago during the siege of Leningrad. Scenes of starvation during
the war are juxtaposed with the marriage feast, and with Marina's memories
of the empty Hermitage and its absent paintings. As Marina's thoughts focus
on the Siege of Leningrad through the prism of the empty Hermitage and its
absent art-works, it becomes clear that the skill that once sustained her -
her ability to remember what she has lost - is slowing leaving her.
THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD is a moving novel of tremendous impact,
beautifully told. The concluding scene is both heartbreaking and joyful, and
one you will not forget soon.
"An unforgettable story of love, survival and the power of imagination in
the most tragic circumstances. Elegant and poetic, the rare kind of book
that you want to keep but you have to share."
-- Isabel Allende, author of The House of the Spirits, Daughter of
Fortune and My Invented Country
The Madonnas of Leningrad is an extraordinary debut, a deeply lovely
novel that evokes with uncommon deftness the terrible, heartbreaking beauty
that is life in wartime. Like the glorious ghosts of the paintings in the
Hermitage that lie at the heart of the story, Dean's exquisite prose
shimmers with a haunting glow, illuminating us to the notion that art itself
is perhaps our most necessary nourishment. A superbly graceful novel.
-- Chang-rae Lee, author of A Gesture Life and Native
Debra Dean video speaking on her novel...
Listen to Debra's interview on National Public Radio on her novel...
(click on Listen button on NPR page)