Coco's Reviews > The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
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's review
Jul 10, 2009

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bookshelves: book-club, russia, history, alzheimer-s
Read in July, 2009

I thought another title for this book could have been "The Memory Palace." During the siege of Leningrad, Hermitage guide Marina is taught to remember important things by building a memory palace in her head. I was fascinated by that idea and by the way the aging Marina, facing the ravages of Alzheimer's, holds onto her old memories by keeping them in her palace. I actually liked this book more than I thought I would. I admired Dean's lush prose, her attention to detail and the way the narrative slipped back and forth between war-torn Leningrad and the present day, mimicing the way Marina slipped away into her memories.

The descriptions of the art in the Hermitage was gorgeous and I'm heading to the website next to admire the various works. In fact, I've already told my kids that we are going to a museum next weekend. The way the art sustained Marina and the other guides during their near starvation makes me hunger for some culture. With regard to hunger, one scene that really hit me was at the wedding reception where there is an abundance of food and Marina is amazed by it all. It's hard to imagine a world where one must subsist by eating glue and branches and later, watch as your children take having a full stomach for granted.

Marina and her husband, Dmitri, had a very sweet relationship and while I would have liked to learn more about how he survived as a German POW, and more details about their reunion, I guess maybe Dean meant to keep that part fuzzy, like Marina's memory. It was heartwrenching to see how Marina's decline into Alzheimer's affected Dmitri, and so sad to think of him losing her, even though she was still physically there. I think Dean's portrayal of both Alzheimer's and the historical facts of the siege were accurate and well-plotted. Her skill in weaving the stories together shows the mark of a very talented new writer on the scene.

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