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The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel

The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel

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The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel

4/5 (83 valutazioni)
244 pagine
4 ore
Oct 13, 2009


“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, New York Times Bestselling author of Aloft and Native Speaker

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. . . .

Oct 13, 2009

Informazioni sull'autore

Debra Dean worked as an actor in New York theater for nearly a decade before opting for the life of a writer and teacher. She and her husband now live in Miami, where she teaches at the University at Miami. She is at work on her second novel.

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The Madonnas of Leningrad - Debra Dean


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 other residents of the museum are allotted only three small chunks of bread each day. Bread the size and color of pebbles. And sometimes frozen potatoes, potatoes dug from a garden at the edge of the city. Before the siege, Director Orbeli ordered great quantities of linseed oil to repaint the walls of the museum. We fry bits of potato in the linseed oil. Later, when the potatoes and oil are gone, we make a jelly out of the glue used to bind frames and eat that.

The man on the right, giving us a thumbs-up, is probably the artist. Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez. This is from his early Seville period, a type of painting called bodegones, scenes in taverns.

It is as though she has been transported into a two-dimensional world, a book perhaps, and she exists only on this page. When the page turns, whatever was on the previous page disappears from her view.

Marina finds herself standing in front of the kitchen sink, holding a saucepan of water. But she has no idea why. Is she rinsing the pan? Or has she just finished filling it up? It is a puzzle. Sometimes it requires all her wits to piece together the world with the fragments she is given: an open can of Folgers, a carton of eggs on the counter, the faint scent of toast. Breakfast. Has she eaten? She cannot recall. Well, does she feel hungry or full? Hungry, she decides. And here is the miracle of five white eggs nested in a foam carton. She can almost taste the satiny yellow of the yolks on her tongue. Go ahead, she tells herself, eat.

When her husband, Dmitri, comes into the kitchen carrying the dirty breakfast dishes, she is poaching more eggs.

What are you doing? he asks.

She notes the dishes in his hands, the smear of dried yolk in a bowl, the evidence that she has eaten already, perhaps no more than ten minutes ago.

I’m still hungry. In fact, her hunger has vanished, but she says it nonetheless.

Dmitri sets down the dishes and takes the pan from her hands, sets it down on the counter also. His dry lips graze the back of her neck, and then he steers her out of the kitchen.

The wedding, he reminds her. We need to get dressed. Elena called from the hotel and she’s on her way.

Elena is here?

She arrived late last night, remember?

Marina has no recollection of seeing her daughter, and she feels certain she couldn’t forget this.

Where is she?

She spent the night at the airport. Her flight was delayed.

Has she come for the wedding?


There is a wedding this weekend, but she can’t recall the couple who is marrying. Dmitri says she has met them, and it’s not that she doubts him, but…

Now, who is getting married? she asks.

Katie, Andrei’s girl. To Cooper.

Katie is her granddaughter. But who is Cooper? You’d think she’d remember that name.

We met him at Christmas, Dmitri says. And again at Andrei and Naureen’s a few weeks ago. He’s very tall. He is waiting for some sign of recognition, but there is nothing. You wore that blue dress with the flowers, and they had salmon for supper, he prompts.

Still nothing. She sees a ghost of despair in his eyes. Sometimes that look is her only hint that something is missing. She begins with the dress. Blue. A blue flowered dress. Bidden, it appears in her mind’s eye. She bought it at Penney’s.

It has a pleated collar, she announces triumphantly.

What’s that? His brow furrows.

The dress. And branches of lilac flowers. She can call up the exact shade of the fabric. It is the same vivid robin’s-egg as the dress worn by the Lady in Blue.

Thomas Gainsborough. Portrait of the Duchess of Beaufort. She packed that very painting during the evacuation. She remembers helping to remove it from its gilt frame and then from the stretcher that held it taut.

Whatever is eating her brain consumes only the fresher memories, the unripe moments. Her distant past is preserved, better than preserved. Moments that occurred in Leningrad sixty-some years ago reappear, vivid, plump, and perfumed.

In the Hermitage, they are packing up the picture gallery. It is past midnight but still light enough to see without electricity. It is the end of June 1941, and this far north, the sun barely skims beneath the horizon. Belye nochi, they are called, the white nights. She is numb with exhaustion and her eyes itch from the sawdust and cotton wadding. Her clothes are stale, and it has been days since she has slept. There is too much to be done. Every eighteen or twenty hours, she slips away to one of the army cots in the next room and falls briefly into a dreamless state. One can’t really call it sleep. It is more like disappearing for a few moments at a time. Like a switch being turned off. After an hour or so, the switch mysteriously flips again, and like an automaton she rises from her cot and returns to work.

All the doors and windows are thrown open to the remaining light, but it is still very humid. The airplanes buzz and drone, but she has stopped flinching when she hears one directly overhead. In the space of a few days and nights, the planes have become part of this strange dream, both tangible and unreal.

Sunday morning, Germany attacked without warning. No one, not even Stalin it seems, saw this coming. No one except Director Orbeli, the head of the museum. How else to explain the detailed evacuation plan that appeared almost as soon as news of the attack came over the radio? On this list, every painting, every statue, nearly every object that the museum possesses, was numbered and sorted according to size. Even more astonishing, wooden crates and boxes were brought up from the basement with corresponding numbers already stenciled on their lids. Kilometers of packing paper, mountains of cotton wool and sawdust, rollers for the paintings, all these appeared as if preordained.

She and another of the museum’s tour guides, Tamara, have just finished removing the Gainsborough from its frame. It is not one of her favorites. The subject is a pampered woman with powdered hair rolled and piled ridiculously high, and topped with a silly feathered hat. Still, as Marina is about to place the canvas between oiled sheets of paper, she is struck by how naked the figure looks out of its frame. The lady’s right hand holds her blue wrap up protectively over her breast. She stares out past the viewer, her dark eyes transfixed. What Marina has always taken to be a vacant-eyed gaze looks suddenly sad and calm, as though this woman from a long-ago ruling class can envision how her fortunes are about to change again.

Marina says to Tamara, She looks a little as though she could see into the future.

Hmm? Who’s that? Dmitri, unaccountably, is standing at the window of their bedroom, holding up a blue dress, fingering the collar.

The Lady in Blue. The Gainsborough painting.

We’d better finish getting dressed. Elena will be here any minute.

Where are we going?

Katie’s wedding.

Yes, of course. She turns away from Dmitri and begins to fish around in her jewelry box. A wedding, so she should dress up. She will wear her mother’s…the things that hang from ears. She can picture them quite clearly but can’t find the word. Neither can she find the objects themselves. She could ask Dmitri where they’ve gotten to, but first she needs the word. Her mother’s…what? They are filigreed gold with little rubies. She can picture them, but there is no word with the picture, not in English or in Russian.

She knows what is happening to her; she is not a fool. Something is eating into her memory. She caught the flu (last winter? two winters ago?) and nearly died. She who had prided herself on never being sick, who survived the starvation winter, was too weak to stand. Dmitri found her at the foot of the bed, collapsed. She lost whole days, a blank week, and when she returned to the living, she was changed.

This is her explanation. There is another. After Dmitri found her pocketbook in the oven, they went to a doctor and he asked her questions. It was like taking her exams at the art academy again, calling up answers to a barrage of random queries posed by her professors. Name the major artists of the Florentine school and several of their works, including the dates and provenances. What is today’s date? Describe the technical processes and materials used in the creation of fresco. I’m going to name three objects and I want you to repeat them back to me: street, banana, hammer. Identify which of the following works are now in the permanent collection of the State Museum of Leningrad and which are in Moscow at the Fine Arts. I’d like you to count backwards from one hundred by seven. Can you repeat back to me the three objects I mentioned a moment ago?

She passed her exams with distinction. But the doctor, though kind, was not impressed. He explained that she is elderly and her confusion is one of those unfortunate but not uncommon alterations that come with old age. She and Dmitri were given a packet of materials and a sheaf of prescriptions and counseled that patience and vigilance was their best course.

Because she sometimes forgets to turn off the burners, she uses the stove now only if Dimitri is present, and then only to heat water for tea. Even the dishes she knows by heart have ended up ruined so often, a cup of flour missing or something mysterious added, that she rarely cooks anymore. Dmitri has assumed most all her jobs, not only the cooking but the marketing and the washing as well. And then there is a girl who comes in and cleans, though this is almost more than Marina can bear. She tries to help the girl, or at least to make her tea, but the girl insists that she was hired to do a job and Marina should just relax. Just put up your feet and be a queen, the girl urges. That’s what I’d do. Marina tries to explain that no one should be idle, spitting at the ceiling while others work for her, but it’s no use. They have finally reached a compromise in which the girl allows her to dust.

Dmitri has laid out her clothes on the bed: a pair of slacks, a knit top, and a sweater.

She doesn’t want to criticize him, but she feels sure that this is too casual. Dmitri has never had a sure sense of the right thing to wear. Left to his own devices, he might pair brown slacks and a red checked shirt with black dress shoes. She never went so far as to lay out his clothes, but she would make discreet suggestions, steering him to another tie or telling him how much she liked him in a particular shirt.

Maybe I should wear a dress? she asks.

I guess you can if you wish, but I think this would be more comfortable. It’s a long drive.

And then we will change for the wedding?

The wedding is tomorrow. Today, we’re going to the island. Tonight, there’s a dinner to meet Cooper’s family.

I see. She doesn’t see at all, but for the moment she will stop trying.

Come on, darling, lift up, he says. She raises her arms, and he tugs her nightgown up over her head. When her head reemerges, she sees a naked body reflected in the mirrored closet door. It is a shock, this withered old carcass. Most of the time, she doesn’t look. But when she does, this image she sees, while vaguely familiar, is not herself. It is a body she remembers, though, something about the mottled skin, pale as a fish and nearly translucent. The way the skin drapes loosely from the arms and knees. And the sagging, empty breasts. The pouching stomach. It is like the body she had during the first winter of the siege. That’s it. Some differences, of course. It is softer, for one thing, without the sharp bones. But it is as alien a creature as that other body. Mulish, too, resisting her will with the same indifference, as if it really did belong to someone else.

She steps gingerly into the underpants Dmitri holds at her feet. When he holds out her bra, she lifts each breast up and settles it into a cup. At her back, she feels his arthritic fingers struggling to connect hooks with eyes.

It occurs to her that she is probably as old as Anya, one of the Hermitage babushki. There was a fleet of old ladies on the staff at the Hermitage, mostly attendants who sat in the rooms, keeping an eye on the paintings and cautioning visitors not to touch the art. Anya was ancient. The old woman could recall the day Alexander II was assassinated, and would tell Marina fantastic stories about the parties the empress held in the Winter Palace. Anya was a remnant of the old capitalist world, a time that had seemed to Marina as far in the past as ancient Greece. Now, reconsidering, she thinks it may have been only some thirty or forty years before her own birth, not long at all, really.

When was Alexander the Second killed?

Oh, for…I don’t know, Marina. She hears the flash of irritation in her husband’s voice. He is still grappling with her bra. She must try to stay present.

They don’t all of them have to be closed, she tells him.

I’ve almost got it. His face is hidden behind her back so she can’t see his expression, but she doesn’t need to. When he concentrates like this, he chews his lower lip.

What shall we eat for lunch? she asks brightly.

Elena is picking us up. Then we’re driving up to Anacortes. We’ll eat something on the ferry, probably.

Yes, I know, she lies. But we might want to make sandwiches to take.

He snaps her bra strap triumphantly and rises up, appearing in the mirror behind her. He, too, has been transformed, her handsome young husband replaced by this elderly, white-haired man. It’s as though his face has melted, puddles of loose skin forming under his eyes, the once firm jaw dripping into wattles. His ears are as long as a hound’s.

Okay, what’s next? Top. Arms up, missus. She raises her arms again and they both disappear.

Here we are, the Hall of French Art. The room is delicate as a suspended breath, the pale dove-colored walls curving under neoclassical vaults, the inlaid floors a minuet of repeating circles and turns. And over here, against the long wall, is a young girl in a beautiful heavy satin gown. In the shadows, half-hidden behind a door, is her young man, and he is kissing her cheek. Though she hasn’t seen us yet, like a deer she is alert, listening intently, expecting to be interrupted at any moment by the women in the next room. The girl is poised to flee. The long, sinuous line of her torso stretches away from the delicate contact of the kiss, through her outstretched arm, and then evaporates into the transparent folds of a scarf.

Fragonard called this The Stolen Kiss, but the boy is not stealing something from her. It is the moment that is stolen before she is called away.

It is like disappearing for a few moments at a time, like a switch being turned off. A short while later, the switch mysteriously flips again. When her eyes blink open, her friend Dmitri’s face is before her. She has the sense that he has been watching her.

They have hardly seen each other since the start of the war. Even though his battalion has been drilling in Palace Square for the past week, though she has heard the shouted orders and the drumbeat of marching feet through the open windows of the Hermitage and known that he was at most a few hundred meters away, there simply hasn’t been time.

I came to take you out. I don’t have to report to the barracks until morning, and I want to take you out for dinner.

Dinner? What time is it?

Almost nine.

In the evening? She is always disoriented now. The Hermitage staff has been packing almost round the clock for weeks and weeks now, eating sandwiches brought into the galleries, slipping away only to use the toilet. In the first week, they crated more than half a million pieces of art and artifacts. And then on the last night of June, an endless parade of trucks carried away the crates. A train, twenty-two cars long and armed with machine guns, waited at the goods depot to spirit the priceless art away, its destination a state secret. Walking back through the rooms, through wastelands of shredded paper, Marina had averted her eyes. Many of the older people wept.

But that was only the visible tip of the collection, the masterpieces on permanent display. Since then, they have been packing up hundreds of thousands of additional items, lesser paintings and drawings, pieces of sculpture, jewelry and coins, collections of silver and shards of pottery. A second train

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  • (4/5)
    Read for book club. I suspect I am in the minority here, but I thought the present day chapters, where Marina is suffering from Alzheimers, were the strongest. The way Dmitri cared for her despite his frustrations, and Marina attempted to make sense of the people and situations around her, were very well done. The chapters set in Leningrad in 1941 (and the constant switching between the two got to be a bit much) were also powerful at times, but the artworks never really came alive for me (and there were pages devoted to them). The jump from 1941 to the present day with just a quick description of Marina and Dmitri's miraculous reunion in a refugee camp felt as if a whole chunk of the story was missing. The fact that Dmitri had to pretend to be a Ukrainian Pole was almost the most interesting fact in the novel for me - I wish there had been more on their adjustment to life in the US. Helen comments that she cannot reconcile the photograph of the mother from before the war with the woman who brought her up, and I sympathize.
  • (5/5)
    I love this book. The vivid descriptions of the art work are wonderful. The author weaves the old woman's memories with the current events in her life in a realistic yet poetic way.
  • (4/5)
    I'll give The Madonnas of Leningrad a big thumbs up for its sad yet realistic depiction of The Siege of Leningrad and one of its survivors, Marina, an elderly woman, now suffering from another type of siege, an assault on her short term memory.Prior to the siege, Marina was a tour guide at The Hermitage. In preparation for an attack by the Germans she then assisted in the removal of the art work she had come to love and know so well, storing it in a safe haven. Marina was once an art student, then a tour guide at the The Hermitage in Leningrad but now, long after the horrors of The Siege, when her and her husband can enjoy life as empty nesters in Seattle and enjoy celebrations with their grandchildren, Marina begins to battle dementia. She can not recall her daughter, her husband must help her dress and cook for her but she does remember Leningrad. The suffering, the cold, the lack of food, the family and friends who did not survive and she remembers the paintings. She remembers the grand staircase, the statues, the murals on the ceiling but most of all, she remembers the Madonnas and the artists who painted them and the back stories involved with each painting.I have read a few books concerning Alzheimer's and a couple of books regarding the siege but nothing like this novel which takes an horrendous period of time and gives it back to a survivor to live over again in her waning days. Yet, the beauty of this story lies in the memories of Art and how in the most dire of days the remembrance of what is beautiful and the ability to imagine it all again seems to act as an armor from what is bad.Well written, mesmerizing and, of course, sad yet through the acts of people like Marina we are, once again, able to enjoy the Madonnas and so much more.
  • (4/5)
    The Madonnas of Leningrad told the story of Marina as a young woman in Russia and as an old woman living in the United States. The young Marina worked at The Hermitage, a large art museum in Leningrad during World War II. The elder Marina suffered from Alzheimer’s, struggling with her memory. Both versions of Marina showed a woman deeply passionate about her contribution to preserving some of the greatest pieces of art in Europe.The story fluctuated between Leningrad and Marina’s home in Washington. The Leningrad parts of the story were fascinating – Marina and her co-workers hurriedly packed up the artwork throughout the Hermitage, saving it from German bombs. Not only did Marina pack away this valuable art, she made a “memory palace” so she would remember where to place the art once the war was over. The Hermitage was a large museum, so memorizing each placement was no small task.Once the Germans reached the city border, Marina and her family moved into the cellar of the Hermitage (along with 2,000 other Russians). Through this part of the story, you learned about the sparse conditions, scarcity of food and bitter cold that the Russians endured during the siege.When the story slipped to the elder Marina, you saw the ravaging effects of Alzheimer’s. Marina could not remember her children’s faces, how to dress or when to use the restroom. But her memory of her time at The Hermitage was perfect.Fans of historical fiction, especially about World War II, can learn a lot from The Madonnas of Leningrad. It’s also a clear look into the darkening mind of an Alzheimer’s patient. My only wish was that Debra Dean devoted more pages to Marina’s life in Leningrad. Her depictions of the siege and the museum’s art left me wishing for more. Nevertheless, this book was a beautiful tribute to the brave people who risked their lives to save something beautiful during the ugliness of war.
  • (5/5)
    A wonderful novel, simultaneously searing, heartbreaking and yet uplifting. The character development is excellent; they are multidimensional yet not overworked. The descriptions of the paintings as viewed from the main character's "palace of dreams" are overwhelmingly beautiful and compelling.
  • (4/5)
    As one can read from the summaries, this book is about a young woman's experiences during the Siege of Leningrad during WWII and her later descent into Alzheimer's. I found both stories to be compelling, but especially think the author did a good job of portraying Marina's confusion due to Alzheimers and the reaction of those around her at her granddaughter's wedding. It provided a great insight into the fact that we can never understand the past experiences of others especially our parents.I do believe this is a very well written novel; however, at times, I must admit that it didn't grip me as it should. I don't have a strong art background and quite frankly found some of the descriptions of the paintings tedious (I know those of you who are art lovers are going to disagree with that statement). This is a great novel for the lovers of historical fiction AND art.I would highly recommend The Siege: A Novel by Helen Dunmore which is also about the Siege of Leningrad.
  • (5/5)
    I learned of the siege of Leningrad some 35 years ago, when I first visited that city of wonders as a college student. I took it to heart 14 years later, when I returned with a group focused on spiritual connections. I have never been able to communicate to my fellow Americans the hope and sorrow that lodged in me as I walked among the endless mass graves of the siege’s victims, and tried to comprehend three years of entrapment in your home, purposefully cut off from food supply. Debra Dean has helped me tell and understand that story. She has couched it in the degenerating memory of a survivor, where it becomes the only thing Marina knows for sure, the deep past the only place she functions fully. Dean allows us to escape with Marina, from the material and familial comforts of age in America’s Pacific northwest in the 21st century, and the confusion and distress of dementia, into the bitter beauty of starvation in 1940s Russia, where Marina had duty and her heritage to feed her soul.Dean tells her stories with aching, lyrical beauty. Not all of the loose ends are tied up, not every story is finished. But we know what we need to know, and we understand that neat packages are among the victims of war. It is the beauty that kept Marina alive through the siege. It is the same beauty that gives her the strength to live on until the beauty of old is all that is left to her. It is the beauty, and Marina’s devotion to it, that draws us to her, moves us to celebrate her apparently unremarkable life. Marina, like the Madonna, whom the Russian Orthodox call the Theotokos, God-bearer, is the vessel of beauty and hope in the most profound devastation. She bears it to us through the siege of Leningrad, and perhaps most wonderfully through the siege of her fragile third life. Where Debra Dean learned that beauty I cannot guess, but I am grateful to her for giving us Marina.
  • (4/5)
    This is a very fondly written story about a woman who worked during WWII at the Ermitag in Leningrad (St Peterburg) and is suffering now from Alzheimer's as an old woman. The story switches between the memories of Leningrad and the decomposition nowadays. In Leningrad she had to wrap all kinds of art due to the war. Thereby she built a memory palace where she could recall every piece of it. Even during all stages of her Alzheimer's disease she was able to see all the art of the Ermitage vividely.Her husband and children try to comfort her during the stages of her disease even though they were rarely able to help her.I loved this story very much.
  • (4/5)
    This is the haunting tale of Marina, a woman who works and later lives in the Hermitage art museum in Leningrad during the long winter of the German siege in World War II. It switches back and forth between her suffering at the museum and her present day self in the Pacific Northwest as an elderly woman whose mind is failing her.Though I had never read about Russia during this time period, much less the siege of Leningrad, as I read I began to wonder if perhaps I'd heard too many stories from WWII. The hunger and death grew wearisome, with the only real interest of the story coming from Marina's passionate descriptions of the art in the Hermitage. But things improved, and I left this book happy I had read it. This is one of those books you wander through with only mild interest until the last few scenes, when everything picks up and ties together, and you turn the last page feeling uplifted and truly satisfied.
  • (4/5)
    Debra Dean takes us on a journey in the mind of a woman who's living with rapidly deteriorating Alzheimer's. She can't remember the present, can't recognize her daughter anymore, and doesn't even realize how reliant she is on her husband now for everything. However, her memories of the past are so sharp and detailed, her present surroundings start to fade. As she fumbles her way around her daughter's visit and her granddaughter's wedding, her memories of the past introduce her to the person she was as a child in Russia, as a young woman who gets engaged the night before her boyfriend is sent to the front line to fight the Germans, a woman who, on her first visit to the Hermitage with her uncle, falls in love with art and later gets a job there giving tours, and who lived in an underground bunker during the war when the Germans started bombing her city. With an elderly woman who worked as a guard at the Hermitage, she builds a memory palace of the art she loved walking past, looking at. The descriptions of the art are so detailed they paint beautiful and amazing pictures in the reader's own mind. A young man who found her when she was lost said to a doctor who claimed she was rambling because she was in shock, "She was showing me the world."Beautiful. Sad, touching and beautiful.
  • (4/5)
    beautiful but so sad - entwined stories of decline into Alzheimers and the deprevations of the siege of Leningrad 1941-
  • (3/5)
    At times this book was quite lovely (especially when focusing on the museum in Leningrad). Other times I felt it pushed too hard to be sensitive and meaningful and touching. Nicely told, with alternating chapters in past and present, but not quite the extraordinary experience I was expecting.
  • (5/5)
    A beautifully constructed tale of an elderly woman with Alzheimer's who remembers her past much more clearly than her present. Marina is attending a family wedding but she rarely recognizes her own daughter, much less the young couple of honor. Marina's present slips easily into the past, when she was a young woman during the siege of Leningrad, removing famous works of art in the Hermitage Museum from their frames for storage and protection from the ravages of war. She endeavors to remember them all, especially various depictions of the Madonna, as a way of enduring the incredibly harsh conditions of living in the museum's cellar. Dean weaves past and present brilliantly. Though numerous descriptions of pieces of art that may be unfamiliar to the reader can grow tiresome, the author's spare and delicate language perfectly captures Marina's youthful determination as well as the toll of Alzheimer's. Highly recommended.
  • (5/5)
    The Madonnas of Lennigrad by Debra Dean was a lovely story about a woman at the end of her life, suffering from Alzheimers, who re-lived the early days of her life the surreal world of war and hunger.
  • (4/5)
    A real page turner. I had heard about the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, but this made it real for me.
  • (4/5)
    Marina works at the Hermitage in Leningrad during World War II. Her fiancé Dmitri leaves to fight at the front in the war, while Marina is trapped in the Russian city during the Siege of Leningrad. She and her aunt and uncle must move into the Hermitage with dozens of others. They are all staving to death, trying only to survive. The secondary plot deals with Dmitri and Marina’s adult daughter Helen and her struggle with her parents’ declining health. Marina has Alzheimer’s and as she looses her recent memories, those long buried memories from the war come to the surface. The combination of the war story and modern day disconnect between children and their parents works well. Immigrants who survived horrific events during the war don’t often want to rehash their heartbreak, but their children may not understand how their current actions have been formed by their past experiences if they never share them. I felt like the book was a bit short. There are so many more details that could have been included. I loved learning about the real events that happened during the siege. It’s a fictional story, but the author did some excellent research. I had no idea about this whole part of WWII and I’m still curious about it. BOTTOM LINE: A short but powerful story of the Siege of Leningrad. Read it if you are interested in learning more about WWII in Russia. "Hunger has eaten away the veneer of civilization, and people are not themselves.""Over the years, they have grown together, their flesh and their thoughts twining so closely that he cannot imagine the person he might be apart from her." 
  • (3/5)
    Good premise but don't like chapters that segue back and forth though time. Also, ending was incomplete. Too many unanswered questions.
  • (3/5)
    Debra Dean had a wonderful idea for a novel, but the novel itself never lived up to my expectations for it. The setting, a museum in Leningrad during wartime, was new to me, and all the details - the food rationing, the artwork, the human misery during that time - were fascinating. Sadly though, the characters never felt as three-dimensional as the setting; the paintings felt more well rounded than the people walking among them. A beautiful title, a beautiful cover, and a beautiful idea for a novel---surely with just a little more editing, a little more work on the part of the author, an exceptional novel would have been published, rather than just this rather run-of-the-mill book.
  • (4/5)
    The book starts off with part of a museum tour, and then quickly transports us to the story of an older woman, Marina, and her struggles with the advancement of Alzheimer's. We discover that Marina is the one giving the tour of the Hermitage in Leningrad that is interspersed throughout. As World War II rages, the museum employees, of which Marina is one, are packing up the artifacts to be shipped someplace safe. She is determined to remember the museum as it was, and begins to use the Hermitage as her memory palace. In the other storyline of the current day, Marina becomes more and more confused by daily life, and the past begins to blur into her present.I found the downward spiral of Alzheimer's affecting - in fact, the first descriptions of Marina's experience of life were heartbreaking. The World War II storyline was interesting as well, though I was a little lost when I didn't have my computer next to me to look up the artwork she was describing. That was one, but not the only, reason it was harder for me to get involved with the Hermitage sections.
  • (3/5)
    I never really felt like this book grabbed. I loved the descriptions of the paintings and felt for the citizens of Leningrad as they struggled to survive the war. However, I never felt completely involved in Marina's story. I felt like something was missing.
  • (5/5)
    Seldom do I read a page turner like this novel, so beautifully written and artfully constructed.Marina is a young Russian woman who is a guide in the Hermitage when WWII and the advancing Nazis threaten. She and her fellow workers must bundle all the hundreds of art-filled rooms’ objects into cases to be shipped out of the city for safe-keeping, leaving the museum bare to serve as a bomb shelter to the workers and their families.In chapters that alternate between that past and Marina’s American present, in which she is deteriorating from advanced Alzheimer’s, we experience the beauty of the Hermitage through Marina’s interior reminiscences as she builds a memory palace of the exhibition rooms and peoples the now empty walls and frames with the paintings – so many of them various Madonnas -- and furnishings that have been whisked away. The chapters segue into each other, merging past and present, like halves of a peach brought together to make a whole fruit.By the end of the novel, Marina’s daughter, Helen, tries to discover this unknown woman who birthed her but kept her own past private by sketching her repeatedly as Marina’s mental and physical wanderings off decline into the abyss of total loss and death.But in life, Marina preserved the world’s beauty unhoused from the museum, was able to “show” it to a group of young cadets, and to the last, as an old woman in the US, again “show” it to a young construction worker who discovers her asleep in the fireplace of the mansion he’s building. Marina takes his arm, points in all the directions of this palace he is constructing and says, "Look!” as if showing him the beauty in the world from within the suggestion of the future "memory palace" under construction. In a way, Marina becomes a Madonna who is but one of myriad works of art that we all are in the museum of the world. One of the most masterful novels I’ve had the pleasure to read this year – complete and satisfying, far-roving and domestic, a total examination of life, art, suffering, perseverance, and love.
  • (5/5)
    This was a four-star book when I closed it's covers. In the two months I've since been pondering it, it's become a five-star book in my mind. Marina's story is told in the present. Her present in the Pacific Northwest, an elderly married woman attending her granddaughter's wedding; her present in Leningrad under The Siege. It is the merging and crashing of her two lives that make this story. As a young woman in Leningrad, she is working at The Hermitage Museum, among many who are frantically packing up the museum's treasures to be secreted away before anything happens to them. Most of the paintings are removed from their frames; the frames left hanging and the paintings packed among hundreds of thousands of the other holdings, on a train en route to somewhere safe. With that work done, their jobs are to take turns standing guard on the roof, and to try to remain alive, while slowly freezing and starving to death. There is nothing left now to distract them from the miseries of cold and hunger except their own internal resources. And so, as the world gets smaller and colder and dimmer, Marina notices, people are becoming fixated. Marina and Anya's fixation: Anya is helping Marina build a memory palace in the museum. “Someone must remember,” Anya says, “or it all disappears without a trace, and then they can say it never was.” So each morning, they get up early and the two women make their way slowly through the halls. They add a few more rooms each day, mentally restocking the Hermitage, painting by painting, statue by statue.Nikolsky's fixation: He sketches so incessantly that at the end of the day his fist will not unclench to release his pencil. The other night, he staged a showing of these drawings. … He had sketched interiors of the cellar and its residents, odd little drawings of their makeshift lodgings. Sketch after sketch showed the low vaulted ceilings crossed with pipes, the clutter of furniture, and the stark shadows cast by a single oil lamp. … One drawing showed merely a hand with three marble-sized pieces of bread resting in the palm. … “My intention was not to suggest anything but what is. These are not meant to be art. They are documentation, so that those who come later will know how we lived.”I found the history of the Hermitage during the siege to be a fascinating story, along with the glimpses of how people managed to survive during that time. Marina's present in her old age, suffering from Alzheimer's, gripped me as well. Whatever is eating her brain consumes only the fresher memories, the unripe moments. Her distant past is preserved, better than preserved. Moments that occurred in Leningrad sixty-some years ago reappear, vivid, plump, and perfumed. . . . The bond that had first brought them together as children existed whether they spoke of it or not, the bond of survivors. … She was his country and he hers. They were inseparable. Until now. She is leaving him, not all at once, which would be painful enough, but in a wrenching succession of separations. One moment she is here, and then she is gone again, and each journey takes her a little farther from his reach. He cannot follow her, and he wonders where she goes when she leaves.But it was the author's way of blending Marina's past and present, making them each the current thing in Marina's mind that kept haunting me. More distressing than the loss of words is the way that time contracts and fractures and drops her in unexpected places.Take, for instance, this selection: And looking around, one can see on the faces of the assembled family and guests the best of their humanity radiating a collective warmth around this fledgling young couple. There is music and tears and words. Commitment and love and cherish and community and honor.And music and more words. Olga Markhaeva recites poetry and Anya sings a song she remembers from her childhood, romantic and sweet. If Marina lives to be eighty, she things, she will never forget this wonderful night.The first two sentences are happening at her granddaughter's wedding, and the next three refer to something that happened sixty years ago in the bomb shelter in Leningrad. I think Ms. Dean did a masterful job of presenting a moment in history with a life unraveling mentally. I can just picture those thoughts of the disoriented happening something like that. More than picture it, I've begun to feel like that sometimes myself. Perhaps that's why this book spoke to me so strongly. Highly recommended for historical fiction buffs, especially if you know someone suffering from Alzheimer's.
  • (4/5)
    Reviewed this for Publishers' Weekly and really enjoyed it. The interplay between the present and the past is deft and meaningful, unlike what we see in some novels with a modern frame for a historical story. The historical plot is interesting and the emotional development in the present feels genuine.
  • (4/5)
    I think I may have only given this book 3 stars if it hadn't been for the way this book tied into my memories of the Hermitage. I was in Russia a bit over a year ago now. I love Russia, and my month long trip was a dream come true. I spent a couple days in the Hermitage, and it was not nearly enough. I read this book not because of Russia, but because I am reading for the Mental Health Awareness Challenge, and this book was towards Alzheimer's. I wish I got more of the emotions and feelings about this women going through her disease, but what I got was lovely as well. I really love how the women can see the beauty in everything now---- dust floating in the air, the sun rays coming in. How many of us take the time to appreciate the beauty life has to offer?

    I think the author did a great job in portraying the main character slipping in and out of reality. I really enjoy (and I use this lightly because it's heart breaking) how she did a particular scene where the character feels like she is reliving her past and present at the same moment. The book in general is beautifully written. Her descriptions and word choice brings about a whole host of emotions throughout the novel.

    Despite this, the book feels disjointed and choppy, but this has to be taken with a grain of salt because it is supposed to be. The women is going deeper and deeper into her disease and so one moment she is with everyone and the next reliving her past with the siege of Leningrad.

    I'd like to know more about things in the story and incidents that took place; there's so much to the story that I'd like to continue. I feel like this could be my real life, begging my grandmother to tell me more stories and yet she simply does not or does not remember. I find it a huge shame, though understandable, that in this book the children know nothing of their parents' life during the war.

    Overall I think the book is good. I would've liked more though. But I still recommend this book--- especially if anyone has visited the Hermitage before. It's amazing how a few words the author write brings up clear memories of things I've seen in the museum. I am not a huge art fan, so I looked, but didn't study most of the paintings. I love the statues, and walls & ceilings, the Egyptian art, the armor, and I even clearly remember the paintings of the dead game---- I think I was particularly morbid back then. Everything I LOVED was of death, or the cut open game, or whatnot. I was drawn in by the portrayal of these things that were not beautiful but rather haunting or so ordinary that it took someone taking to time to portray it to make you see the beauty in it. Anyways, I'm rambling about things other than the book now. I do hope others read the book to experience these things as well.
  • (2/5)
    I have a hard time understanding all the 4-star ratings. It was difficult to stick with this book to the end. Parts of it were boring, all the detailed art in the museum, etc. It skipped back and forth from present to past too many times. The story was poignant and sad, and the trauma the Leningrad population suffered was well described. It was not my favorite read that's for sure.
  • (3/5)
    This book is a disorganized mess. It is a bunch of vignettes based on 2 themes searching for a plot. Some of the writing is beautiful regarding the art, and the environment, but the characters are paper thin. There are vignettes from the past about the main character's activities during WWII as a docent at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad/St. Petersburg in Russia. Then there are vignettes set in a modern time with the character as an old woman with Alzheimers. The modern parts are rather bland and boring, in fact the whole book is bland and boring. The 2 parts never really connect up, nothing is explained or fleshed out.
  • (5/5)
    The grand, gilded frames hang empty on the walls of the Hermitage, a witness of hope for restoration of the paintings packed away for protection during the siege of Leningrad. Perhaps they are also a metaphor for the Marina's life - once filled with beauty and meaning, now under siege by a relentless enemy, Alzheimer's.The Madonnas of Leningrad shines like a jewel from its many facets - art history and appreciation, human drama and war, the mystery of the inner person and the heartbreak of Alzheimer's. I was captivated from the first page to the last sentence of this book about beauty, this beautiful book.
  • (5/5)
    This is a beautiful book. How any citizens of Leningrad survived that winter is a miracle.
  • (4/5)
    The book is about a woman, in the present who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Her short term memory is shot, but her long term memory, specifically relating to the time she was a docent at the Hermitage (and when she was sheltered there during The Siege of Leningrad,) is still sharp. The author does a great job of describing what someone with Alzheimer's might be going through and; the story has it's moments of triumph and poignancy. It's similar to WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (by Sara Gruen) and THE HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET (by Jaimie Ford) in that the narrative alternates between the protag in an earlier time and a "now" time when they are old; but TMOL has a little more dignity inherent to it in that it's not as obviously emotionally provocative. I spent quite a bit of time at The Hermitage Museum web-site, checking out the art and architecture mentioned in the book. The web-site is excellent, with high resolution digital images and virtual tours; but wow! how I would love to see the place and the art in person!
  • (5/5)
    The Madonnas of Leningrad is a thin book, only 228 pages, but it leaves you feeling as though you traveled to a different time and place. In 1941, Marini was a tour guide at the Hermitage museum in Leningradbut the war has changed things and on Stalin's orders all the precious painting and sculptures are being packed up to send to safety. One day in despair Marini confides to a companion that she is forgetting all the beautiful paintings she has been so proud to present to the public. Her friend advises her to rebuild the art in her memory, a palace of paintings. Marini does just that and the descriptions of the art she is trying to remember, will haunt me.Shortly after her fiance, Dmitri, leaves for duty in the People's Army, the war goes badly for Russia and soon the unthinkable happens, Leningrad is being bombed, day and night. Marini and her companions speed up their packing and begin moving art to the basement to save it. Before long, she is a night spotter, standing on the roof of the Hermitage, watching for enemy planes and calling down to report them.The Siege of Leningrad lasted 900 days. With many of the houses unable to be occupied, Marini and the family she has left, retreat to the basement of the Hermitage, where they will live out most of the remainder of the war. Marini is cold, starved and in fear, but her palace of the Madonnas that graced the walls of the museum, give her something to rely on. More importantly, she discovers when she gives others 'tours' of these paintings, she describes them so vividly that other people 'see' them all. Marini survives the war and Dmitri does also, they meet again in a displacement camp and he arranges to get them out of Germany and to America at the war ends.Marini still walks the corridors of the Hermitage, glorying in the art that only she can see. Her life, after her children are grown becomes more and more her memories and finally, when her disease overcomes her, she only lives in the present, when someone, usually her husband draws her back. Her disease takes away the present, old age, illness, pain and leaves her and ultimately the reader with the memory of those glorious paintings, many of which have never been seen, in public again.