Marina nods. It would be pointless to argue that neither of them is going to die. Already they move through their days like ghosts, one foot in front of the other, thin as vapor.
No one weeps anymore, or if they do, it is over small things, inconsequential moments that catch them unprepared. What is left that is heartbreaking? Not death: death is ordinary. What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp. Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers. What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world. (from The Madonnas of Leningrad, page 161)
The Madonnas of Leningrad is a heart-wrenching novel by Debra Dean that takes readers on a journey from the Soviet Union in 1941 to Seattle in the present. Marina worked in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad during World War II, and as the Germans closed in, she and the other museum workers packed up all the paintings and other works of art and shipped them to safety. Empty frames hung on the walls in hopes that the war would end soon, and things would return to normal.
Marina and the uncle and aunt who took her in as a child lived in the museum's cellar during the siege, and as she worried about her fiancé, Dmitri, who was fighting in the People's Army, she and the hundreds of others packed in the cellar spent the winter months slowly freezing and starving to death. With the help of Anya, an older museum worker, Marina created a "memory palace" to survive the cold, the grief, and the hunger. She walked from room to room, taking in the empty frames and imprinting in her mind each detail of every painting that hung before the siege.
In the present, Marina is an elderly woman losing her most recent memories to Alzheimer's. The book takes place over the span of a few days, with her daughter, Helen, arriving to accompany her and Dmitri to their granddaughter's wedding. Marina's experiences in Leningrad are shown to readers when she drifts back to the past -- something that happens frequently. The memories of the siege are fresh in her mind, and the "memory palace" she used to weather the war helps her deal with her worsening condition.
While most of the book focuses on Marina, readers get a glimpse of Helen's mid-life struggles to fulfill her dream of being an artist and her realization that she doesn't really know much about her parents. Dean also shows Dmitri's strong love for Marina and the sadness he feels as she slips away from him.
...The bond that had first brought them together as children existed whether they spoke of it or not, the bond of survivors. Here in America, a relentlessly foolish and optimistic country, what they knew drew them closer together. She was his country and he hers. They were inseparable.The Madonnas of Leningrad is a moving story of love and war, memory and grief, family and survival. Once I started reading, it was impossible to put the book down, and I read all 231 pages in a little more than a day. When I turned the last page, I was emotionally drained yet wished my time with these characters wasn't over. Dean's writing is beautiful, and I felt so close to the characters. Although the characters are shown only in two fixed points in time, they are well developed and realistic, and I couldn't help but love them. Dean's descriptions of the various paintings are so vivid I could see them in my mind, and she made the hardships of the museum cellar come alive so I could feel the hunger and despair. The shift from present to past through Marina's worsening Alzheimer's was seamless, and Dean's real-life experiences with the disease shine through. (In the acknowledgments, she says her grandparents' "lifelong love affair and their journey with Alzheimer's" inspired her.)
Until now. She is leaving him, not all at once, which would be painful enough, but in a wrenching succession of separations. One moment she is here, and then she is gone again, and each journey takes her a little farther from his reach. He cannot follow her, and he wonders where she goes when she leaves. (page 119)
The Madonnas of Leningrad is a complex, multi-layered story, and I highly recommend it, even to readers who normally shy away from stories involving war. It is so much more than a war story, and while it's really sad and a little hopeful, it's worth the emotional roller coaster ride.
The Madonnas of Leningrad is my 19th book for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations.
(It's WWII week here at Diary of an Eccentric. It wasn't my intention, but I might have another challenge review tomorrow...)
Disclosure: I borrowed The Madonnas of Leningrad from a friend.