Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

"When I go, you must try to bury me beside him," Nadezhda says.

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.

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 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.)

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.


Lezlie said...

This one is high on my list for when I finish all my challenges. I had it down originally for the WWII challenge, but finished it off before I got to this one! Oops.


bermudaonion said...

Oh my, this sounds fabulous - it's going on my wish list.

Lisa said...

This is sitting in my TBR pile--looks like it needs to get moved to the top of the pile!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Anna..this one have been on my shelf since it was released. I've been meaning to read this since then. Great review.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds wonderful. I got to go to Leningrad several times, and it is my favorite place of anywhere - certainly the most beautiful. So this book would interest me anyway, but your great review makes it essential!

Kristen said...

I'm so glad you liked it. I've been mentioning it to people for years as a really lovely read. Not sure how many people take me up on it and how many look at me and sidle a little further away from the crazy lady. ;-)

Sandy Nawrot said...

Fascinating. You know how obsessed I am over these books. Going to try to get my hands on this one!

BurtonReview said...

I love books that suck you in like that, even though it's not a happy subject. Definitely going to the top of the must read list.. Thanks for an awesome review!

Melissa said...

This is one of the books I'd planned on reading for the WWII challenge, but now I just need to find it...

Julie P. said...

I absolutely loved this book!!!! Truly wonderful!

Cathy said...

I absolutely loved this book, too. I remember recommending it to everyone the year I read it.

Staci said...

I enjoy books that leave you emotionally drained and yet not wanting them to end. Your review was eloquent and I really enjoyed reading about this book!!

Kailana said...

I really want to read this. I have for years!

Esme said...

This was a good book.

Unknown said...

the article above and then the comments made for this book say that its a nice book to read..But I think I would have to order it online as it might not be available in India..

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The Reading Momster said...

i Have read about this book many times. And I am intrigued ! I need to get this book soon!

Serena said...

Thanks for letting me borrow your copy! Can't wait to get started...though there are some other books I must finish first!

Anonymous said...

If the book moved you so much , then it must have been one really good book. All books don't have such power over their readers.

I am putting it on my TBR list.

Anonymous said...

It sounds heartbreaking, like it would make me go through a whole box of tissues.

Unknown said...

The title sounds so catchy, I would pick up this book just for that sake! Nice review!

Marie Cloutier said...

I thought Madonnas was a fantastic read too. Thanks for talking about it and I'm glad you enjoyed it! :-)

Unknown said...

I will definitely have to add this one to my wishlist. I am greatly interested in how the Soviet Union is portrayed since I do know some about it (considering it used to be my neighboring country, tightly connected with communist Poland). And the story in itself does sound worth reading.

Marg said...

I love reading books set in WWII and in Russia, so this was a book that I had to read. I liked it, but thought there were a couple of plot points that weren't 100% clear. I did enjoy the portrayal of the Hermitage, and thought it was an interesting study of the effects of Alzheimers.

Sheila (bookjourney) said...

This looks and sounds really really good. WOW!

The Bookworm said...

wow, this does sound good. Wonderul quotes.
great review.

Anna said...

~Lezlie: Who's to say you can't read one more? ;P I'm looking forward to your thoughts on it.

~bermudaonion: I do hope you get a chance to read this one.

~Lit and Life: Definitely! ;)

~Diane: Thanks! I hope you get a chance to read it soon.

~rhapsodyinbooks: This book made me want to visit Lengingrad one day.

~Kristen: Well, you just have to let people know about good books! Serena and I were in a book store over the weekend and she kept wanting to stop people and tell them what they should read. LOL

~Sandy: I knew you'd be interested in this one. We think alike on this subject.

~Marie: My pleasure! Hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

~Melissa: I do hope you get to read it for the challenge!

~Julie: So glad you loved it, too!

~Cathy: I think it's among my favorite reads of the year!

~Staci: Thanks! I hope you get a chance to read it soon.

~Kailana: I hope you get a chance to read it. It's worth dropping everything else. :)

~Esme: Glad to hear you liked it.

~Jimmy: Thanks!

~Veens: Yes, you do! ;P

~Serena: Looking forward to your thoughts.

~Shweta: It definitely ranks among the best books I've read this year. Hope you get a chance to read it, too.

~carolsnotebook: It definitely brings tears to the eyes.

~Pratima: I love the title, too.

~Marie: I only wish I'd read it sooner!

~lilly: I'd love to hear your thoughts on the book, since you'd know more about that region than I do.

~Marg: I'm curious as to which plot points you mean. Glad you enjoyed it overall.

~Sheila: I hope you decide to read it.

~Naida: Thanks!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

You did a really nice job with this review, Anna ... I loved THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD, beautiful writing, beautiful story!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful review on what sounds like a wonderful book. I'm going to try to read this one.

Marg said...

My review is here.


The biggest one for me was about her child and reunion with her husband.

Wanda said...

I've yet to read anything negative about this book. Wonderful review Anna, definitely one I have to pick up someday!

Anna said...

~Dawn: Thanks! Seems like most people who read it, love it.

~justicejenniferreads: Thanks! Hope you get a chance to read it.

~Marg: I've enjoyed "discussing" the book with you. :)

~Wanda: Yes, you must! :)

Alyce said...

I've heard nothing but good things about this book. It is still sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. Sometimes I feel like I have a feast of books, but I can only consume so much at one time. I wish that I could take in more at once and still relish every bit.

Darlene said...

This was one of my favorite books. I just loved it. YOu are doing so well with the Challenge. Way to go!

I'm really behind with comments as well Anna. It's been a crazy week at my house and I'm just plain behind on blogging in general.

Teddy Rose said...

I really liked this book. I thought it was a great first book. She wrote this a few years ago, I wonder if she is working on anything right now?

S. Krishna said...

I totally agree. I don't really read a lot of books about war, but this one was totally worth it. Great review.

Anna said...

~Alyce: I don't think you're alone in that regard. Hope you get a chance to read this one soon. It's so worth it!

~Dar: Thanks! I hear ya 'bout commenting. There's just not enough time in the day to keep up with everything.

~Teddy Rose: I think she's written a collection of short stories, but I didn't find anything really recent.

~S. Krishna: Thanks!

Anna and Serena said...

We've posted a link to your review on the War blog.