The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel

The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel

by Debra Dean


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“An extraordinary debut, a deeply lovely novel that evokes with uncommon deftness the terrible, heartbreaking beauty that is life in wartime. Like the glorious ghosts of the paintings in the Hermitage that lie at the heart of the story, Dean’s exquisite prose shimmers with a haunting glow, illuminating us to the notion that art itself is perhaps our most necessary nourishment. A superbly graceful novel.”  — Chang-Rae Lee, New York Times Bestselling author of Aloft and Native Speaker

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. . . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060825317
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/20/2007
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 147,393
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

Debra Dean worked as an actor in New York theater for nearly a decade before opting for the life of a writer and teacher. She and her husband now live in Miami, where she teaches at the University at Miami. She is at work on her second novel.

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.

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.”

Reading Group Guide


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

  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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The Madonnas of Leningrad 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 105 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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mary_Jean_Adams More than 1 year ago
This is another World War II book, and while it’s easy to have too many of these in your TBR pile, this one is worth adding. Though I will say that I didn’t love this one quite as much as the rest of the ladies in my book club. The main character is suffering from Alzheimer’s and with four cases of it in my immediate family, the story hit a little too close to home. That said, it ended quite beautifully.
gypsysmom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is Debra Dean¿s first novel but I certainly hope she writes more. She is very gifted and her humanity shines through this book.Marina was a docent at the Hermitage Museum just before World War II came to the doorstep ofLeningrad/St. Petersburg. Her boyfriend, Dmitri, asked her to marry him just before he was shipped off to the front and they spent one night together. As an employee of the museum, Marina and her uncle and aunt sheltered in the basement while the Germans shelled the city. Marina worked as long as it was possible to box up paintings and other treasures. When the galleries were empty she used to continue to recite her tour as she went through. One of the babushkas told her that she was making a memory palace and she convinced her to continue. Marina had to spend nights on the roof of the building to watch for fires. Usually she had a partner, but one night she was alone and she believed she made love with one of the gods whose statues lined the roof. Of course, by this time the siege of Leningrad was in full force and everyone was starving so perhaps it was a dream or a vision. As the cold winter months went by Marina and everyone else starved and froze. Many people died. Her uncle died first and then her aunt a month or so later.Marina lived, we know because the story also contains a present day story line in which Marina is suffering from Alzheimer¿s Disease. She is soon going to attend her granddaughter¿s wedding but she has trouble remembering who is getting married. She even has trouble recognizing her daughter Elena who comes to pick her and Dmitri up. However, she remembers clearly events from that terrible winter and she goes through her memory palace at will.Does the title refer to the paintings of the Hermitage, many of whom were madonnas painted by the great masters? Or is Marina one of the Madonnas? It could go either way or maybe both meanings apply.It was very interesting to me to read Dean¿s take on Alzheimer¿s Disease. My mother had this horrible affliction before her death. Dean apparently watched a beloved grandmother suffer from it. I guess we¿ll never know exactly what the person with the disease thinks. Certainly in the early stages my mother knew something was wrong just as Marina did. I felt something similar to what Elena felt when the end came:Several years hence, when Marina¿s body is finally winding down, Helen will feel no grief, only a quiet detachment, as though she is waiting for a bus¿it is late and she is tired but she has nowhere she needs to be and it will get here when it gets here. She and Andrei and Naureen and the grandchildren have long since said their good-byes, and Marina herself has left¿That¿s the tragedy of Alzheimer¿s; the loved one disappears before the body is gone. I was fortunate that my mother still knew me right up to the end but many are not so blessed. I hope we find a cure soon!
ACQwoods on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this on the sale shelf at the bookstore and enjoyed a second story about the siege of Leningrad from another perspective. This book follows Marina, an elderly woman falling into dementia. When she leaves the present she finds herself back in Leningrad where she worked at the Hermitage, a huge art museum. As the war came to Leningrad the employees packed away all the art and Marina memorized the entire museum. We learn about her past as her family does. I was completely enthralled by the story, both past and present.
luvlylibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the flashbacks to the war, but thought that Marina's present-day life and her daughter Helen's life could have been more fleshed out.
countrylife on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a four-star book when I closed it's covers. In the two months I've since been pondering it, it's become a five-star book in my mind. Marina's story is told in the present. Her present in the Pacific Northwest, an elderly married woman attending her granddaughter's wedding; her present in Leningrad under The Siege. It is the merging and crashing of her two lives that make this story. As a young woman in Leningrad, she is working at The Hermitage Museum, among many who are frantically packing up the museum's treasures to be secreted away before anything happens to them. Most of the paintings are removed from their frames; the frames left hanging and the paintings packed among hundreds of thousands of the other holdings, on a train en route to somewhere safe. With that work done, their jobs are to take turns standing guard on the roof, and to try to remain alive, while slowly freezing and starving to death. There is nothing left now to distract them from the miseries of cold and hunger except their own internal resources. And so, as the world gets smaller and colder and dimmer, Marina notices, people are becoming fixated. Marina and Anya's fixation: Anya is helping Marina build a memory palace in the museum. ¿Someone must remember,¿ Anya says, ¿or it all disappears without a trace, and then they can say it never was.¿ So each morning, they get up early and the two women make their way slowly through the halls. They add a few more rooms each day, mentally restocking the Hermitage, painting by painting, statue by statue.Nikolsky's fixation: He sketches so incessantly that at the end of the day his fist will not unclench to release his pencil. The other night, he staged a showing of these drawings. ¿ He had sketched interiors of the cellar and its residents, odd little drawings of their makeshift lodgings. Sketch after sketch showed the low vaulted ceilings crossed with pipes, the clutter of furniture, and the stark shadows cast by a single oil lamp. ¿ One drawing showed merely a hand with three marble-sized pieces of bread resting in the palm. ¿ ¿My intention was not to suggest anything but what is. These are not meant to be art. They are documentation, so that those who come later will know how we lived.¿I found the history of the Hermitage during the siege to be a fascinating story, along with the glimpses of how people managed to survive during that time. Marina's present in her old age, suffering from Alzheimer's, gripped me as well. 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. . . . The bond that had first brought them together as children existed whether they spoke of it or not, the bond of survivors. ¿ She was his country and he hers. They were inseparable. Until now. She is leaving him, not all at once, which would be painful enough, but in a wrenching succession of separations. One moment she is here, and then she is gone again, and each journey takes her a little farther from his reach. He cannot follow her, and he wonders where she goes when she leaves.But it was the author's way of blending Marina's past and present, making them each the current thing in Marina's mind that kept haunting me. More distressing than the loss of words is the way that time contracts and fractures and drops her in unexpected places.Take, for instance, this selection: And looking around, one 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. There is music and tears and words. Commitment and love and cherish and community and honor.And music and more words. Olga Markhaeva recites poetry and Anya sings a song she remembers from her childhood, romantic and sweet. If Marina lives
cameling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Debra Dean takes us on a journey in the mind of a woman who's living with rapidly deteriorating Alzheimer's. She can't remember the present, can't recognize her daughter anymore, and doesn't even realize how reliant she is on her husband now for everything. However, her memories of the past are so sharp and detailed, her present surroundings start to fade. As she fumbles her way around her daughter's visit and her granddaughter's wedding, her memories of the past introduce her to the person she was as a child in Russia, as a young woman who gets engaged the night before her boyfriend is sent to the front line to fight the Germans, a woman who, on her first visit to the Hermitage with her uncle, falls in love with art and later gets a job there giving tours, and who lived in an underground bunker during the war when the Germans started bombing her city. With an elderly woman who worked as a guard at the Hermitage, she builds a memory palace of the art she loved walking past, looking at. The descriptions of the art are so detailed they paint beautiful and amazing pictures in the reader's own mind. A young man who found her when she was lost said to a doctor who claimed she was rambling because she was in shock, "She was showing me the world."Beautiful. Sad, touching and beautiful.
dgmlrhodes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although I read this book sometime ago, it still haunts me. This was a beautifully written book and a wonderful story. The parts of the story tie together nicely in the end.
bkswrites on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I learned of the siege of Leningrad some 35 years ago, when I first visited that city of wonders as a college student. I took it to heart 14 years later, when I returned with a group focused on spiritual connections. I have never been able to communicate to my fellow Americans the hope and sorrow that lodged in me as I walked among the endless mass graves of the siege¿s victims, and tried to comprehend three years of entrapment in your home, purposefully cut off from food supply. Debra Dean has helped me tell and understand that story. She has couched it in the degenerating memory of a survivor, where it becomes the only thing Marina knows for sure, the deep past the only place she functions fully. Dean allows us to escape with Marina, from the material and familial comforts of age in America¿s Pacific northwest in the 21st century, and the confusion and distress of dementia, into the bitter beauty of starvation in 1940s Russia, where Marina had duty and her heritage to feed her soul.Dean tells her stories with aching, lyrical beauty. Not all of the loose ends are tied up, not every story is finished. But we know what we need to know, and we understand that neat packages are among the victims of war. It is the beauty that kept Marina alive through the siege. It is the same beauty that gives her the strength to live on until the beauty of old is all that is left to her. It is the beauty, and Marina¿s devotion to it, that draws us to her, moves us to celebrate her apparently unremarkable life. Marina, like the Madonna, whom the Russian Orthodox call the Theotokos, God-bearer, is the vessel of beauty and hope in the most profound devastation. She bears it to us through the siege of Leningrad, and perhaps most wonderfully through the siege of her fragile third life. Where Debra Dean learned that beauty I cannot guess, but I am grateful to her for giving us Marina.
Clara53 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A poignant picture of Leningrad blockade during the Second World War (Hermitage in particular).
tibobi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story takes place in present day America, but is interspersed with flashbacks of the Siege of Leningrad where Nazi Germany attempted to capture Leningrad during World War II. The story centers around Marina, a young tour guide for the Hermitage Museum. She, and countless others, decide to remove the priceless masterpieces for safekeeping. They leave the empty frames up with the hope that one day, the masterpieces will be returned to their frames.During this time, Marina is forced endure the harshness of living in a war torn country. Living with others, in the basement of the museum, she is exposed to freezing temperatures, forced to live on very little food and has no choice but to watch those around her perish from starvation. Her one glimmer of hope, is thinking about her lover, Dimitri and who has left to work the front lines.Flash forward to present day. Marina is now 80 years old and battling Alzheimer's. She is preparing to attend her granddaughter's wedding with her husband, Dimitri. Her daughter Helen, is not aware of the Alzheimer's until she sees her mother at the wedding. Her son, Andrei, is aware of the situation, but has not fully grasped the severity of her condition. Dimitri, who loves her dearly, continues to care for her as her condition declines. As the festivities of the wedding surround them, Marina escapes to the corners of her mind and revisits her childhood and her time in Leningrad.I've never known anyone that has battled with Alzheimer's, but the thought of not even recognizing your own husband or child... just the mere thought, fills me with fear. For Marina, the memories that are most intact, are the ones that she created for her "memory palace". During her time at the museum, her friend taught her how to envision each masterpiece within her mind, without it being present in the room. This created a "memory palace" of sorts. These are the memories that she can readily recall, but the more recent memories, such as her daughter's divorce, are non-existent.As the novel unfolds, we follow Marina to those gallery halls as the author describes, in painstaking detail, what used to hang within the Hermitage. The writing here is so vivid. I could "see" those paintings as the author described them. I even went back and Googled them at one point to see if what I had envisioned was close to what the author described.This novel was bittersweet for me. It was beautifully written, well developed and a treat for the eyes. The appreciation of beauty and life, contrasted with the darkness of the city and the bleak winter that followed... I really felt for these characters and their personal hardships. Although we are given a glimpse of Marina's current state (sad as it is), we are also given hope during the last few pages of the book. Not hope really, but closure. I felt completely satisfied when I finished and I don't feel that way too often after finishing a book.
sruszala on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting but not compelling--as always the insight into a new place is fascinating--and the account of the siege of Leningrad and those who lived in the Hermitage is well-done and vibrant. The story itself doesn't do much, though--I'm not sure I would remember it for a long time.