The Madonnas of Leningrad
  • The Madonnas of Leningrad
  • The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of Leningrad

3.8 66
by Debra Dean

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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

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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. . . .

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Editorial Reviews

Isabel Allende
“Elegant and poetic, the rare kind of book that you want to keep but you have to share.”
People Magazine
"Dean writes with passion and compelling drama about a grotesque chapter of World War II."
Nancy Pearl Book Review - NPR
"[A] remarkable first novel about the consolation of memory."
“Dean writes with passion and compelling drama about a grotesque chapter of World War II.”
Daily Mail (London)
“…this is a novel that dares to be beautiful - and fully succeeds.”
NPR Nancy Pearl Book Review
“[A] remarkable first novel about the consolation of memory.”
New York Times Book Review
“[A] heartfelt debut.”
Oakland Tribune
“Exquisitely crafted and deeply satisfying.”
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“[A] poetic novel.”
Salt Lake City Tribune
The most-recommended book of 2006
Publishers Weekly
Russian emigre 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) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
The story of Marina is told in flawless prose through alternating chapters that describe her life as a museum guide at Leningrad's Hermitage during World War II, and as an elderly Seattle woman who is losing her memory to Alzheimer's. The two periods are connected seamlessly by themes of memory, love, beauty, sacrifice, and hope. In 1941, Hermitage workers are packing art to be shipped to the interior for safekeeping. Canvases are removed while their frames remain on the walls. Marina begins keeping a "Memory Palace"-detailed mental pictures of the art. The paintings parallel life in their depictions of war, young lovers parting, and food. When the German Army blockades Leningrad, workers and their families move into the cavernous Hermitage basement, and they are soon dying from cold and starvation. When Marina loses her will to live, she discovers new life stirring within her-the result of a tryst with a soldier, Dmitri, her future husband. Her pregnancy and Memory Palace save her. Marina's dementia becomes obvious as she and Dmitri travel to an island to attend the wedding of their son Andrei's daughter. Late at night Marina wanders off. As rescue teams search, she somehow rediscovers her Memory Palace, and again, art saves her. Exquisitely written, this unforgettable story teaches readers about history and humanity, about terrifying losses, and about redeeming love and hope. Older teens with relatives experiencing dementia illnesses will relate to the Seattle chapters, but the primary connection will be to the young Marina as she experiences her first love, dedication to work and art, and her survival against all odds. Teens who enjoy good literature will enjoy this book. VOYA CODES:5Q 3P S A/YA (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed book recommended for Young Adults). 2006, William Morrow, 231p., Ages 15 to Adult.
—Florence H. Munat
Library Journal
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 Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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P.S. Series
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.57(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Madonnas of Leningrad

A Novel
By Debra Dean

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Debra Dean
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060825308

Chapter One

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 Orbeliordered 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 Velazquez. 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.


Excerpted from The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean Copyright © 2006 by Debra Dean. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Isabel Allende
“Elegant and poetic, the rare kind of book that you want to keep but you have to share.”

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The Madonnas of Leningrad 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 66 reviews.
Mariposa More than 1 year ago
This book is just absolutely beautiful on so many levels. Writing a review of it is such a pleasure. The book is poetic. The book is historical fiction at its best. The book deals with the horrors of Alzheimer's in the gentlest way possible. The book is most importantly, at least for me, about the power of art. I loved this book and give it my highest recommendation.If you read nothing else this year, read this book.
Erica827 More than 1 year ago
This book was beautiful! I enjoyed Debra's descriptions of the museum and artwork. I felt as though I was walking right along with her. I had my computer close by so I could look up the paintings as she described them. To me, this book was an art history lesson in the middle of a beautiful story about two distinct topics: the pain of alzheimer's and the pain of war. I highly recommend this book!
akateferg More than 1 year ago
In this book, memory is the the theme for the main character Marina. As a young woman during the siege of Leningrad, Marina learns to create a "memory palace" of the Russian Hermitage Museum as they pack up and send away the treasures of art, not knowing if they would ever make it back to the museum. She is able to use this memory as a young woman to share the treasures of the museum with people, such as a group of young soldiers, by giving tours of the empty museum and describing each work of art in detail, as if it were still hanging in its rightful place. This was what helped her survive during that terrible ordeal. Marina uses her memory palace to keep the museum and her youth alive in her mind, and goes back to it as she ages and her memories of other things fade. As Alzheimer's advances, she cannot remember where she is or that the woman next to her is her daughter, but she can recall in vivid detail the lines of a beautiful painting or sculpture. We remember the tragic of events of a war, because more often than not there are greater lessons to be learned. War teaches us about prejudice and hatred, scapegoating and indifference. Memories of tragic events also teach us to be grateful for what we have, and not take for granted the gifts given to us. Marina learned these lessons yet she is now in a state where she can no longer passs them on. The Madonnas of leningrad is striking not only because it is well written and draws the reader in, but because it relates the theme of memory to our lives, and reminds us that memories are sometimes all we really have.
Angela2932ND More than 1 year ago
I was disappointed in this book. It blends Marina's present (when she is in her 80s, suffering from Alzheimer's) and her past, 1940's Leningrad and the siege of the city. Both realities provide a fascinating glimpse of her life, but neither are developed enough to satisfy. The premise is clever, and the book moves readily from era to era, but the overall feel is much too fragmented. To compound the problem, the long passages devoted to the artwork of the museum in Leningrad would likely be very appealing to an artist or art historian, or someone who has traveled to Leningrad. . . but sadly, I don't fall into any of those categories. I would have enjoyed reading more about either time of Marina's life, but ultimately was relieved when I finished the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Madonnas of Leningrad will lead you through the depths of despair to the heights of all that is good in humanity, the realization that there is always hope and remembering beauty, art, love and passion can fill your darkest days. As a young woman Marina survives the siege of Leningrad during World War II living in the cellar of the Hermitage, amidst starvation, death and horrendous atrocities, she memorizes the paintings she once described as a docent, though they have already been taken from their frames to safety elsewhere. As the book skips back and forth in time, Marina today is an elderly woman with Alzheimer¿s. We see how time is 'fractured' for her and the effects it has on her family. The family disagrees over what to do, but is overshadowed by the pain of Marina's husband, who promised her he would take care of her but cannot get 'her' back. For those of us who have or have had a family member with Alzheimer¿s, this book helps to confirm your own experience yet may possibly give you hope that your loved one, when 'gone away' from you could well have been experiencing the most significant event of their lives. It's a must read for you.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful book! It leaves the reader with so much to think about. How much of our memories are real? Are memories safer than everyday life? It is also a story of survival. How do we survive everyday life? In this case, we get to see how one woman survives two very devastating times in her life. The first by creating the memories of her young adulthood in war torn Leningrad and the other, in her final years trying to live with, and deny the effects of, Alzheimer's disease by slipping back into those memories. This book is beautifully written. I felt the fear and cold of Leningrad in 1941 and I felt the terror of trying to cope and understand what is happening in 2005 Seattle. And through it all, love prevailed. I wish the book could have included prints of the pictures mentioned but I know it would be cost prohibitice. I did go online and found them. It makes me SO want to go to the Hermitage Museum. I will be recommending this book to my friends and my book groups!
Guest More than 1 year ago
A beautiful story about the gentle strength of women even in the worst of times. Marina's love of art transends her reality of the terrible days during WWII when Leningrad is under siege. Later in her life, beauty again heals her spirit and brings the reader into a real sense of peace and hope too.
mt1roc More than 1 year ago
If you've traveled to St. Petersburg and visited the Hermitage this novel will give you new insights to the museum and its art. If not, it is still a fascinating story based on real events during the Second World War. Marina's memories of her survival living in the basement of the Hermitage through a desperate winter when the city was being attacked by air raids nearly every night is memorable. Having something to do during the day to keep her mind active was essential. She pursued the unusual mind game of recalling the stored art in each room of the museum from memory. Her ability to bring the paintings to life through her detailed descriptions is amazing. The added twist to the story is that many chapters are written as though Marina is a young woman living through the war. However, in reality she is quite old and is suffering from Alzheimers. Some chapters are written from her current confused perspective and a few reflect the views of Marina's daughter about dealing with her mother. The story and twists and turns keep the reader engaged. Although the settings sound dreary they do not read that way on the page. The situation is so unusual that it kept me reading, almost as if it was a summer page turner. This would make an excellent book club selection. I encourage everyone to read this fascinating story.
goodnurse More than 1 year ago
I loved the back and forth from past to present and interweaving of memories with facts about the museum.
SAM1954 More than 1 year ago
I found the insights into Alzheimer's to be as fascinating as the story of Leningrad. The descriptions were accurate and the story well told. I would highly recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The characters weren't sufficiently developed to make the reader really care about them. I ended the novel not 'knowing' anyone. I wasn't bothered by the switching back and forth through time in the book, but it seemed like a contrivance that just didn't really work. I kept waiting for there to be a much stronger connection between past and present of Marina's 'memory palace' and it just never happened. Very disappointing story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
THE MADONNA'S OF LENINGRAD by Debra Dean is a well crafted book about times during 1940's war torn Russia when the museum's staff were crating up and moving their art works to safer places. It is more importantly, about a woman who was part of this work but, years later, is now living in America and suffering the affects of dementia. She recalls her life in Russia because of a process that she used in the museum called 'mapping the mind'. This book reminded me of Nicholas Spark's THE NOTEBOOK as it tenderly and loving deals with the people who suffer the loss of their past because of the loss of their mind's memories. It is a wonderful read for everyone who is related to, deals with, or might themselves become a victim of dementia sometime in life. This book shows how the beauty of artwork affects the mind and emotions of people- all people- in their everyday lives. The hardships of war are depicted through the innocence of this incomplete mind during recollections which make these memories all the more poignant. MADONNA'S OF LENINGRAD is a beautiful book and Debra Dean has the start of a wonderful writing career with this, her first novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was very disappointing to me as the plot sounded far better than its implementation. The switching from era to era is not seamless and there is a preponderance of minutiae concerning the art. I have no doubt the author did her research but it was overdone and seemed to pad the plot without purpose. I will not buy another book by this author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved the author's use of language. Her ability to make reader feel like they are they are experiencing what the characters experience is amazing. Unfortunately, the story is unfinished. It leaves far too many story threads dangling. I would gladly have read 100 more pages if she would fill in more details of her characters' lives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written first novel by Ms. Dean. A good historic novel that deals with Altzhimer desease.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed much of the book but also agree that the story seemed very unfinished.  
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book for summer reading and boy is it good it may be confusing at times but if you re-read the confusing parts it helps you understand it a little better tha what i did!
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