Memory is fragile, and flexible. Even its failures serve us at times. The Madonnas of Leningrad, the first novel by Seattle professor Debra Dean, is the story of Marina, a young museum docent who takes refuge in the Hermitage during the 1941 siege of Leningrad. The paintings and artifacts are gone, carefully packed and shipped out of reach of German bombs. On the advice of a babushka, an older woman on the museum staff, Marina builds a memory palace: a museum in her mind where each painting still hangs on the wall. The memory palace serves as Marina's anchor and salvation, an exercise of imagination where she pictures a future for herself and the baby she is carrying. Of all the works in the famed collection, the paintings of Madonnas most inspire her.
After the siege, Marina finds her beloved Dmitri in a German POW camp. They make their way to Seattle, where they raise two children who know little about their mother's wartime experience.
Dean merges past and present in prose that shines like the gilt frames in the Hermitage. The story shifts seamlessly from 1941 to the present, just as Alzheimer's shifts time within Marina's mind. The heart of the story is its flashbacks, when we walk the Spanish Hall with Marina, aching with loss and hunger. As she commits scenes, colors, even brushstrokes to memory, the paintings come alive. Chapters narrated by her daughter Helen show us the present, when Marina slips away at a family gathering. During the search, Helen, herself a mother and an artist, wonders about the memories parents choose to tell their children and the memories they keep secret.
Drawn in part from Dean's observations of her grandmother's life with Alzheimer's, The Madonnas of Leningrad is an artful story, lovingly told, that illustrates how humans deal with trauma—the physical privations and fears of war, and the slow deterioration of the mind itself. Like the empty frames on the museum walls, this novel of memory and forgetting glows with love and hope.
Leslie Budewitz writes, reads and paints in northwest Montana. Copyright 2006 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2005 December #2
As Alzheimer's slowly erases Marina's world, her past in wartime Leningrad begins to again take form around her.In 1941, as Hitler besieged and bombed Leningrad, Marina was one of hundreds of workers in the Hermitage dedicated to preserving its vast art collection from destruction. Day and night, she and her colleagues dismantle frames, move furniture, pack and ship objects. Most are women and many are old, and as the bombing becomes more intense, they all move with their families to the basement of the museum. A winter of legendary ferocity descends; the food stores of the city are destroyed; there is no sign of the blockade lifting. People eat pine needles, bark, and finally their own pets. To cling to her sense of the value of life, young Marina begins to assemble a mental version of the Hermitage, committing the paintings, and their placement, to memory. Sixty years later, this "memory palace" will be all that is left in Marina's memory, a filter through which she sees a world she no longer understands as a series of beautiful objects. In her debut, Dean has created a respectful and fascinating image of Alzheimer's. The story of the older Marina-mustering her failing powers in a war for dignity, struggling to make reality without recollection-makes the war sequences seem almost hackneyed in comparison. And when Dean falters, it is by pushing the emotive war material into the territory of hysteria. A thoughtful tragedy that morphs into a tear-jerker in the third act. Copyright Kirkus 2005 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2005 November #2
During the Siege of Leningrad, staff at the Hermitage removed the paintings for safekeeping but symbolically left up the frames, and the elderly Marina now recalls vividly reimagining the missing works. A much-touted debut; with a West Coast tour. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2006 February #2
As a young woman, Marina became a docent, guiding Soviet citizens through the treasures of the Hermitage Museum. Through the 900-day siege of Leningrad beginning in 1941, her knack for describing in great detail the images of the works of Italian Renaissance painter Titian and Flemish Baroque painter Rubens helped her survive when thousands of others died. Later, she and her husband fled westward and settled in the United States. As this first novel by Dean, a Seattle college teacher, opens, Marina is living in the tattered shreds of her memory. Her elusive grasp of the present and her meticulous recollections of a long-suppressed past are in delicate opposition. Memory, once her greatest ally, is now her betrayer. Like her adoring museum audiences 60 years earlier, readers will absorb Marina's glorious, lush accounts of classical beauties as she traces them in her mind. Dean eloquently depicts the ravages of Alzheimer's disease and convincingly describes the inner world of the afflicted. Spare, elegant language, taut emotion, and the crystal-clear ring of truth secure for this debut work a spot on library shelves everywhere. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/05.]--Barbara Conaty, Moscow, Russia[Page 106]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Russian emigré Marina Buriakov, 82, is preparing for her granddaughter's wedding near Seattle while fighting a losing battle against Alzheimer's. Stuggling to remember whom Katie is marrying (and indeed that there is to be a marriage at all), Marina does remember her youth as a Hermitage Museum docent as the siege of Leningrad began; it is into these memories that she disappears. After frantic packing, the Hermitage's collection is transported to a safe hiding place until the end of the war. The museum staff and their families remain, wintering (all 2,000 of them) in the Hermitage basement to avoid bombs and marauding soldiers. Marina, using the technique of a fellow docent, memorizes favorite Hermitage works; these memories, beautifully interspersed, are especially vibrant. Dean, making her debut, weaves Marina's past and present together effortlessly. The dialogue around Marina's forgetfulness is extremely well done, and the Hermitage material has depth. Although none of the characters emerges particularly vividly (Marina included), memory, the hopes one pins on it and the letting go one must do around it all take on real poignancy, giving the story a satisfying fullness. (On sale Mar. 14)[Page 24]. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.