1. The working of memory is a key theme of this novel. As a young
woman, Marina’s remembering of the missing paintings is a deliberate act
of survival and homage. 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
2. Sometimes, Marina finds consolations within the loss of her
short-term memory. “One of the effects of this deterioration seems to be
that as the scope of her attention narrows, it also focuses like a
magnifying glass on smaller pleasures that have escaped her notice for
years.” Is aging merely an accumulation of deficits or are there gifts
3. The narrative is interspersed with single-page chapters describing a
room or a painting in the Hermitage Museum. Who is describing these
paintings and what is the significance of the paintings chosen? How is
each interlude connected to the chapter that follows?
4. The historical period of The Madonnas of Leningrad begins with the
outbreak of war. How is war portrayed in this novel? How is this view of
World War II different from or similar to other accounts you have come
5. Even though she says of herself that she is not a “believer,” in what
ways is Marina spiritual? Discuss Marina’s faith: how does her
spirituality compare with conventional religious belief? How do religion
and miracles figure in this novel? What are the miracles that occur in
The Madonnas of Leningrad?
6. A central mystery revolves around Andre’s conception. Marina
describes a remarkable incident on the roof of the Hermitage when one of
the statues from the roof of the Winter Palace, “a naked god,” came to
life, though she later discounts this as a hallucination. In her dotage,
she tells her daughter-in-law that Andre’s father is Zeus. Dmitri offers
other explanations: she may have been raped by a soldier or it’s
possible that their only coupling before he went off to the front
resulted in a son. What do you think actually happened? Is it a flaw or
a strength of the novel that the author doesn’t resolve this question?
7. At the end of Marina’s life, Helen admits that “once she had thought
that she might discover some key to her mother if only she could get her
likeness right, but she has since learned that the mysteries of another
person only deepen, the longer one looks.” How well do we ever know our
parents? Are there things you’ve learned about your parents’ past that
helped you feel you knew them better?
8. In much the same way that Marina is struggling with getting old, her
daughter, Helen, is struggling with disappointments and regrets often
associated with middle-age: her marriage has failed, her son is moving
away, she may never get any recognition as an artist, and she is losing
a life-long battle with her weight. Are her feelings of failure the
result of poor choices or a bad attitude or are such feelings an
inevitable part of the human condition?
9. In a sense, the novel has two separate but parallel endings: the
young Marina giving the cadets a tour of the museum, and the elderly
Marina giving the carpenter a tour of an unfinished house. What is the
function of this coda? How would the novel be different if it ended with
the cadets’ tour?
10. What adjectives would you use to describe The Madonnas of Leningrad?
Given the often bleak subject matter - war, starvation, dementia – is
the novel’s view of the world depressing?
Is your book club reading The Madonnas of Leningrad? Debra Dean is
available to participate in your book club meeting via speakerphone.
Email requests to debra at literarydelights dot com
(you have to concatenate the words and replace "at" with @...)