The Madonnas of Leningrad
by Debra Dean
Reviewed by Susan Gillmor
Debra Dean’s debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, is an artistically sketched portrait of an unremarkable woman and her memories of a remarkable past as Alzheimer’s begins to unravel her long life.
As docent at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad in 1941, young Marina Anatoyevna Krasnova helps pack the priceless art collection for evacuation from the encroaching Germans. She memorizes, piece by piece, the paintings that once filled the empty frames on the walls of her museum. These recollections become her “memory palace” during the siege and starvation of her native city. Decades later when her short-term memory begins to fail, she resurrects the palace.
At her granddaughter’s wedding near Seattle, Marina “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.” But she is forgetting slowly, inexorably, her children’s names and the faces that surround her at the wedding. Instead she finds herself in the Leningrad of her youth, admiring a Rembrandt figure reclining in “a lavish boudoir. . . draped with heavy brocades and velvets.”
As each of her present moments disappears, another work of art, another Madonna takes its place to light Marina’s inner world. Each work of art becomes a prayer, a hope: in 1941 in the face of hunger and death, and against the loss of recall in the present. Her husband mourns the fading sweetheart of his Russian childhood and protects her dignity. This is a love story, full of the rich sweep of history and war and courage alongside a lifetime of simple daily moments. It is a sacred narrative of one woman’s eighty-year journey.
We ask in the end, “What is left that is heartbreaking?” We learn: “Not death; death is ordinary. . . . What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world.” The Madonnas of Leningrad offers us glimpses of uncommon beauty. (2006; 240 pages)
More about The Madonnas of Leningrad at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Other novels about the power of art:
Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, about a single Vermeer painting and the meaning it has for its owners through the centuries. More info
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, about an illustrated Jewish prayer book and the people who protect it despite war and persecution through the centuries. See review or more info at Powell's Books
Nonfiction about the Hermitage Museum and its artworks:
The Hermitage: The Biography of a Great Museum by Geraldine Norman (1997). More info
Masterpieces of the Hermitage from Scala Publishers (2004). More info
Nonfiction about the Siege of Leningrad/Stalingrad:
Writing the Siege of Leningrad: Women's Diaries, Memoirs and Documentary Prose by Nina Perlina (2002), about women's experiences during the Siege. More info
Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad by William Craig (1973), about the Siege of Leningrad (the city has been known by a number of names through its history: Saint Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, Stalingrad, and now back to Saint Petersburg, or just Petersburg). More info
Official website of The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). It offers an impressive virtual tour of the galleries.
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