The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
The setting is St Petersburg, Russia. The main character, Marina, is a guide at the Hermitage Museum when war breaks out with Nazi Germany. She helps to pack and evacuate the million plus paintings and art objects in the collection and then, during the first winter of the siege, lives in the cellars beneath the emptied museum, alongside other members of the staff and their families.
This amazing story alternates chapters with Marina’s present life in Seattle where she is suffering with Alzheimer’s. As she attends her granddaughter’s wedding, she often slips into the past, recalling in vivid detail her life as this young lady in Russia.
As the New York Times Review stated so well, “Admirably humane in its determination to restore the dignity Alzheimer’s strips away.”
So one would think...Seige of Leningrad, Nazi terrorism, a frigid Russian winter when people are dying of starvation AND then throw in Alzheimer’s...whoa...way too heavy. As one member of our book group said who recently lost her father, “I just can’t deal with reading this now—too depressing!” Yes, one would think so. But as gruesome as some scenes were, it was also an inspiring novel that was so uplifting I want to read it again, not only for the message but also for the beauty of the language.
Author Debra Dean was inspired to write this story after watching the 1995 PBS series on the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, which tells of the l.1 art million objects packed and evacuated. They left the empty frames on the walls as a token of their pledge that the art would return. The series tells that one of the staff, a former guide now living in the cellar, began to give tours of the empty museum to visitors. It was said he described the paintings so well that the visitors could almost see them.
What is also quite amazing is that Dean wrote her debut novel with detailed accuracy without ever having been in Russia. She spent years reading histories of the war and siege. She studies wartime photographs and maps of the city and hours on the Hermitage’s Web site, learning the layout of the museum and viewing video footage of the rooms. An appendix also gives us related reading both for the Russian history and Alzheimer’s.
You don’t have to be an art major to appreciate this book, but by the time you are finished you will want to see these glorious works of art and thanks to the website, you can. www.hermitagemuseum.org.
In addition to all of the above, this is just a good story of love, family, and the endurance of the human spirit. When Dean finally visited the museum in person (with her royalty advance from the publisher) she learned two Russian words which she spoke to her tour guides and which I say now to the author for giving us such a rich read: Spasiba pri krasna. Thank you. It’s beautiful.