Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Madonnas of Leningrad

It's not often an author so powerfully brings together the beauty of art with the tragedy of war, but Debra Dean does just that in her national bestselling novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad.

Traveling back and forth between the present time and to the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, this novel focuses on Marina, a docent at the Hermitage museum in Leningrad during the war, and later, an elderly wife and mother living in America who suffers from Alzheimer's.

During the book's war years, we see Marina as a young woman whose fascination and deep love of the art on display at the Hermitage literally keeps her alive on the darkest days of the siege. When the book opens, Marina and other employees of the museum are packing up museum treasures to ship them out, thereby keeping them safe from the approaching Nazi war machine. They pack up the paintings themselves, but leave the frames hanging in their original spot. Marina determines to commit each painting to memory so that she has a "memory palace" of where each painting goes so that if they paintings themselves are lost, the memory of them will not be.

During the siege, Marina and others go through an incredibly harsh existence. Here Dean does not shirk from describing the reality of that tragic time. Food is scarce and the chilling, bitter temperatures of Russia's winter claim thousands upon thousands of lives. Marina struggles to survive along with the rest of her countrymen, and constantly improves on her "memory palace." Dean's poetic, almost lyrical language in describing each painting brings the artwork to life. You yourself will "see" it in your mind's eye just as surely as did Marina.

In the present time, Marina suffers from Alzheimer's and feels her recent memories begin to shatter. Yet the memories of Leningrad and of her time at the Hermitage are crystal clear.

This is a fascinating book not only for its vivid portrayal of Leningrad during the siege, but also for its brilliance in portraying memory as one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. It's an imaginative work, and one that will stay with you long after the last page is turned

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