Madonnas of Leningrad

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"In the fall of 1941, the German army approached the outskirts of Leningrad, signaling the beginning of what would become a long and torturous siege. During the ensuing months, the city's inhabitants would brave starvation and the bitter cold, all while fending off the constant German onslaught. Marina, then a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum, along with other staff members, was instructed to take down the museum's priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, yet leave the frames hanging empty on the walls - a symbol of the artworks' eventual ...
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Overview

"In the fall of 1941, the German army approached the outskirts of Leningrad, signaling the beginning of what would become a long and torturous siege. During the ensuing months, the city's inhabitants would brave starvation and the bitter cold, all while fending off the constant German onslaught. Marina, then a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum, along with other staff members, was instructed to take down the museum's priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, yet leave the frames hanging empty on the walls - a symbol of the artworks' eventual return. To hold on to sanity when the Luftwaffe's bombs began to fall, she burned to memory, brushstroke by brushstroke, these exquisite artworks: the nude figures of women, the angels, the serene Madonnas that had so shortly before gazed down upon her. She used them to furnish a "memory palace," a personal Hermitage in her mind to which she retreated to escape terror, hunger, and encroaching death. A refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more." Moving back and forth in time between the Soviet Union and contemporary America, The Madonnas of Leningrad is a portrait of war and remembrance, of the power of love, memory, and art to offer beauty, grace, and hope in the face of overwhelming despair.
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Editorial Reviews

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.
VOYA
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.
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."
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.”
People
“Dean writes with passion and compelling drama about a grotesque chapter of World War II.”
Salt Lake City Tribune
The most-recommended book of 2006
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060825300
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/14/2006
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

A native of Seattle, Debra Dean worked as an actor in New York for nearly a decade before becoming a writer. She lives in Miami and teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University.

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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?"

"Yes."

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.

Continues...


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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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

In this sublime debut novel, set amid the horrors of the siege of Leningrad during World War II, a gifted writer explores the power of memory to save us... and betray us.

Questions for Discussion

QUESTIONS:
  1. The working of memory is a key theme of this novel. As a young woman, remembering the missing paintings is a deliberate act of survival and homage for Marina. In old age, however, she can no longer control what she remembers or forgets. "More distressing than the loss of words is the way that time contracts and fractures and drops her in unexpected places." How has Dean used the vagaries of Marina's memory to structure the novel? How does the narrative itself mimic the ways in which memory functions?

  2. Sometimes, Marina finds consolations within the loss of her short-term memory. "One of the effects of this deterioration seems to be that as the scope of her attention narrows, it also focuses like a magnifying glass on smaller pleasures that have escaped her notice for years." Is aging merely an accumulation of deficits or are there gifts as well?

  3. The narrative is interspersed with single-page chapters describing a room or a painting in the Hermitage Museum. Who is describing these paintings and what is the significance of the paintings chosen? How is each interlude connected to the chapter that follows?

  4. The historical period of The Madonnas of Leningrad begins with the outbreak of war. How is war portrayed in this novel? How is this view of World War II different from or similar to other accounts you have come across?

  5. Even though she says of herself that she is not a "believer," in what ways is Marina spiritual? Discuss Marina's faith: how does her spirituality compare with conventional religious belief? How do religion and miracles figure in this novel? What are the miracles that occur in The Madonnas of Leningrad?

  6. A central mystery revolves around Andre's conception. Marina describes a remarkable incident on the roof of the Hermitage when one of the statues from the roof of the Winter Palace, "a naked god," came to life, though she later discounts this as a hallucination. In her dotage, she tells her daughter-in-law that Andre's father is Zeus. Dmitri offers other explanations: she may have been raped by a soldier or it's possible that their only coupling before he went off to the front resulted in a son. What do you think actually happened? Is it a flaw or a strength of the novel that the author doesn't resolve this question?

  7. At the end of Marina's life, Helen admits that "once she had thought that she might discover some key to her mother if only she could get her likeness right, but she has since learned that the mysteries of another person only deepen, the longer one looks." How well do we ever know our parents? Are there things you've learned about your parents' past that helped you feel you knew them better?

  8. In much the same way that Marina is struggling with getting old, her daughter, Helen, is struggling with disappointments and regrets often associated with middle-age: her marriage has failed, her son is moving away, she may never get any recognition as an artist, and last but not least, she is losing a life-long battle with her weight. Are her feelings of failure the result of poor choices and a bad attitude or are such feelings an inevitable part of the human condition?

  9. In a sense, the novel has two separate but parallel endings: the young Marina giving the cadets a tour of the museum, and the elderly Marina giving the carpenter a tour of an unfinished house. What is the function of this coda? How would the novel be different if it ended with the cadets' tour?

  10. What adjectives would you use to describe The Madonnas of Leningrad? Given the often bleak subject matter - war, starvation, dementia—is the novel's view of the world depressing?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 63 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 63 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 11, 2009

    Highest recommendation

    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.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 2, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Beautiful!

    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!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 6, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    The Theme of Memory Prevails in the Madonnas of Leningrad

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 9, 2010

    Disappointing

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting

    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.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2007

    For any art lover who loves someone with Alzheimers

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2006

    Mysteries of love, art, and the mind

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2006

    Beautiful writing, unfinished story

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2006

    I love this books and I loved the characters.

    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!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2006

    A Must Read

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2013

    I enjoyed much of the book but also agree that the story seemed

    I enjoyed much of the book but also agree that the story seemed very unfinished.  

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2013

    This is very good

    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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  • Posted August 17, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A hauntingly beautiful Must Read

    Marina doesn't recognize her daughter but can picture clearly the residents of the Hermitage museum during 1941 as Hitler marched on Russia, she can't comprehend that the woman standing before her is her granddaughter and yet she can see the faces of her cousins as they board the busses leaving Leningrad, can still feel the anguish of their mother and the resolve of their father, she sees before her a spread of food and thinks it's a dream because she remembers like yesterday the starvation of a whole city during one terrible winter.
    Set in modern day Seattle Ms. Dean takes us into the cloudy web of the mind of a woman who's lived through mindless tragedy, unspeakable degradation and survived to tell the tale only to be ravaged by another foe that will make her forget, but she doesn't stop there she takes us into the heart of this family and how they cope with a mother who's not all there anymore and a father who won't let her go. She does this by spending a chapter in the present and one in the past to show us the continuity of her story and then to show us further the effect on the victim some of the chapters meld together in one confusing episode. Her narrative is haunting, it's raw, it's terrifying and it's beautiful, it's love in the first degree between Dimitri and Marina and she captures that feeling no better than on page 119 where Dimitri says of Marina "She was his country and he hers. They were inseparable". Her descriptions of war torn Leningrad and her dying people is horrifyingly realistic and yet she also brings forth the utter stubbornness of this people who refuse to give up as they go through they're daily routines even as they slowly die.
    It's a love story, it's a tragedy, it's a story of life and the end of it. It's a tale of literary fiction that you will find yourself coming back to time and time again.
    It's important to not forget that there are works out there that are not hot off the presses that need to be discovered or in my case rediscovered, like this one.

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  • Posted May 2, 2010

    In addition to really enjoying the book, I also felt as if I was actually walking through the Hermitage Museum viewing the paintings with her.

    The main character is a Russian woman in her 80's, now living in America. She is suffering with Alzheimer"s disease and the consequent loss of her "self".
    As Marina's mind moves back and forth from the present to the ever more present past, due to the progressive nature of the disease, we learn about her life as a young woman in love, working for the Hermitage Museum, during the siege of Leningrad, complete with the awful conditions that existed as the city was surrounded by the German soldiers. We live through the years of starvation and deprivation as she lives in the cellar of the museum with more than two thousand employees, with little to eat, no heat or electricity and very little news of what is going on beyond the boundary of the museum.
    One of the other employees convinces her that she should build a "memory palace" in her mind and they walk, endlessly, through the museum, room after room, memorizing the names and descriptions of paintings and other works of art that had been housed there.
    We move back and forth in time with her and as she remembers the art work, we are treated to a view of the Hermitage Museum as she sees it in her mind, almost as if we are viewing the paintings with her. They come alive for us as we walk the halls with her.

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  • Posted June 29, 2009

    Fascinating Historical Fiction

    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.

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  • Posted June 21, 2009

    very different

    I loved the back and forth from past to present and interweaving of memories with facts about the museum.

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  • Posted May 2, 2009

    One of my favorites of the past year.

    This is one of my favorite books of the last year. I'm in two book clubs plus read others in between sometimes. I am recommending this to all my friends.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2008

    inspiring story of survival during war

    I enjoyed this book. It was an inspiring story of a young woman's survival during WWII. At the same time, it was a story of her family lovingly coping with her Alzheimers later in her life. On one hand, I would have loved to have known more about the characters. On the other hand, the story wasn't about them, it was about the main character, Marina. I felt like I had some understanding of what it must have been like for the people in the Hermitage building to live through that winter in Russia. Thank you Debra Dean and the inspiration from your grandparents.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2006

    great story, not so great ending

    this was a wonderful story. it was a little confusing at first, the main character going from present to past, but i soon got the hang of the rythem. my favorite part of the book was the memory palace. i thought it was such a neat thing to do, i may try it myself. the ending was a bit disappointing. to me it seemed a bit too abrupt. i didn't really get to know the characters like i do with other books. i would definately recommend it to other people, but i may worn them that the ending might not be to there satisfaction.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2006

    A beautiful story, beautifully told

    Debra Dean's new novel is crafted with prose reminiscent of Hemingway's spare writing. Every word was placed with care. The story incorporates descriptions of the art treasures of the Hermitage in pre WWII Leningrad as a major story line. Like art seen in a museum, our lives leave us with memories that may (or may not) be accurate but are real to us. Dean's story was a wonderful read. The switching between past and present was effective and the ending, while abrupt, left us pondering what was real and what really happened both then and today. Not to be missed!

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