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A heartbreaking story of two different battles

  • Oct 17, 2010
War is undoubtedly hell but it is a particularly poignant cruelty when it is waged on civilians - men, women and children alike - as it was during the 900 days of the Nazi's bitter siege of Leningrad in 1941. Marina Anatolyevna Krasnova remembers her time as a young girl in a bitterly cold war torn city in astonishingly vivid detail. A former tour guide of the now renowned Hermitage Museum, she has mentally preserved the details of every room and every painting in the museum in her mind's eye with crystal clarity - a "memory palace" as it were. She remembers her breathless efforts along with the rest of the museum staff to remove the museum's priceless artifacts into safekeeping in the museum cellars to protect them from the relentless pounding of the Luftwaffe bombers. The bittersweet lovemaking with her best friend, Dmitri, is an anchor she desperately clutches to with ever diminishing hopes for a future as his wife when he is shipped out of the city to wage battle against the advancing German army.

Beyond all reasonable expectations in the constricted, difficult world that was wartime Russia, both Marina and Dmitri survive into their old age and THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD also tells the story of now elderly Marina's present day battle with an entirely different enemy - the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. Slowly but inevitably, Marina loses the recent memories of her family, her children, the coming wedding of her grand-daughter and any meaningful sense of where she is and what she is doing.

Debut author Debra Dean has told two magnificent stories that evoke compassion without being maudlin, that convey the meaning and importance of beauty, loyalty, patience, caring and love in our lives and, of course, that demonstrate the futility, horror and destruction that war brings to the world. Despite the very obvious literary and artistic content of the novel, her writing is simple and never pretentious or overbearing:

"Aside from the sirens, it is quiet tonight, no planes yet. But the moon is rising, so they will come. She hates the moon. It is dead, and its flat, dead light draws in Fascist planes like moths. Though she knows her perspective has been poisoned by the war, it is hard to see why poets make such a romantic fuss over an ugly, pockmarked disk."

What adjectives does one apply to THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD? Warm, compelling, compassionate, literary, moving, poetic, evocative and disturbing are just a few of the words that come to mind. It might be a short novel but it is powerful and you won't soon forget it.

Highly recommended.

Paul Weiss

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October 17, 2010
Lovely review - I don't know this one but will seek it out. You may be interested in my List of ten books set in Eastern Europe and Russia which includes two set during the Siege of Leningrad.
October 18, 2010
Thanks for the kind words, Fiona. I'll be checking your list out ASAP.
More The Madonnas of Leningrad reviews
Quick Tip by . October 17, 2010
Two poetic and evocative stories about a young girl's struggles in war torn Leningrad during the Nazi's siege in WW II and her subsequent present day struggles with the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. At once heartwarming and heartbreaking.
review by . January 04, 2007
This is, as the other reviewers have so wel pointed out, a remarkable story of great love - of art, of family, and of survival at a time when it seemed nothing would survive - no decency, no beauty, and definitely not human beings besieged in the midst of a horrendous war.     Later we find our heroine equally besieged, by the unforgiving terrors of alzheimer's disease, as she struggles to remember family, friends, and at times who she is. All of this is premise for an unforgettable …
review by . February 26, 2006
The Madonnas of Leningrad is the poignant story of Marina, who survived the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. The novel tells the story of how Marina memorized all the works of art in The Hermitage Art Gallery after they had been evacuated from the museum; she would walk the halls as a mission to not forget the beauty in the hopes that one day they would return. Set during the deprivation and devastation of the times, Dean brings to life the artwork amid Marina's personal story of …
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Paul Weiss ()
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   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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Russian emigré Marina Buriakov, 82, is preparing for her granddaughter's wedding near Seattle while fighting a losing battle against Alzheimer's. Stuggling to remember whom Katie is marrying (and indeed that there is to be a marriage at all), Marina does remember her youth as a Hermitage Museum docent as the siege of Leningrad began; it is into these memories that she disappears. After frantic packing, the Hermitage's collection is transported to a safe hiding place until the end of the war. The museum staff and their families remain, wintering (all 2,000 of them) in the Hermitage basement to avoid bombs and marauding soldiers. Marina, using the technique of a fellow docent, memorizes favorite Hermitage works; these memories, beautifully interspersed, are especially vibrant. Dean, making her debut, weaves Marina's past and present together effortlessly. The dialogue around Marina's forgetfulness is extremely well done, and the Hermitage material has depth. Although none of the characters emerges particularly vividly (Marina included), memory, the hopes one pins on it and the letting go one must do around it all take on real poignancy, giving the story a satisfying fullness.
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ISBN-10: 0060825308
ISBN-13: 978-0060825300
Author: Debra Dean
Publisher: William Morrow

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