Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
Published March 2006 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: bought for my Nook

Publisher's Summary:
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.

My Thoughts:
Sixty years after that devastating 900 day siege, the memory Marina relied on in order to survive has betrayed her. As her family prepares for the wedding of her granddaughter, Marina is struggling to remember who is even getting married as Alzheimer's begins to tighten its grip on her mind.

Dean, in her debut novel,  moves back and forth in time as Marina, again and again, slips into her past. Marina's battle to stay in the present is beautifully written, although the story does get bogged down when Dean moves into Marina's daughter's problems. Likewise, Dean paints a vivid picture of life in a world devoid of hope as the people of Leningrad fight to survive but the story again gets bogged down in overly vivid details of the paintings Marina is committing to memory.

The Hermitage during the siege of Leningrad
It's always a plus for me when a book pushes me to look for more information on a subject and this one had me not only researching the siege of Leningrad but also the paintings that Dean highlighted.

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