Eve's Reviews > The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
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's review
Jun 15, 2010

it was amazing
Read in June, 2010

Heartbreakingly beautiful!

Apparently, Debra Dean was inspired to write The Madonnas of Leningrad because of a true story. During World War II, staff of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) packed up 1.1 millions objects of art and evacuated them. 2,000 of the staff lived in the cellar during the seige of the city by Nazis. One of the staff, a former guide, remembered the places and the details of the painting so well that he would give tours of the empty rooms, describing the art so vividly that visitors could envision them. How's that for memory?

In The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, Marina, a former tour guide at the Hermitage, is now an old woman whose mind is being ravaged by Alzheimer's. Time and memories become fluid for her, as it does in the narrative, which Dean illustrates by seamlessly moving from present to past, sometimes mid-sentence. When Marina slips from the present, to the horror and sadness of her husband and children, she returns to her perfectly remembered memories of her time during the ghastly winter of 1941 when she was living in near starvation in the cellar of the Hermitage. Out of desperation, she built a "memory palace," committing to memory all the works of art that used to be on display in the museum, down to the tiniest detail.

Marina has her memory palace: that has become her fixation. She can now walk anywhere in the picture gallery, and the sculptures and paintings appear so readily in her mind that she can rattle most of them off without thinking. What started as an exercise, a distraction, has come to seem like the very point of her existence.

This amazing feat is juxtaposed in poignant detail with Marina's current deterioration as an old woman and its effect on her family. The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean is a magical, bittersweet book that is so well-imagined that the stirring descriptions of the paintings have convinced me a visit to the Hermitage is imperative.

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