The Madonnas of Leningrad
By Debra Dean
(William Morrow, Hardcover, 9780060825300, 240pp.)
Publication Date: March 2006
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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One of the most talked about books of the year . . . Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina's grip on the everyday. And while the elderly Russian woman cannot hold on to fresh memories--the details of her grown children's lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild--her distant past is preserved: vivid images that rise unbidden of her youth in war-torn Leningrad.
In the fall of 1941, the German army approached the outskirts of Leningrad, signaling the beginning of what would become a long and torturous siege. During the ensuing months, the city's inhabitants would brave starvation and the bitter cold, all while fending off the constant German onslaught. Marina, then a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum, along with other staff members, was instructed to take down the museum's priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, yet leave the frames hanging empty on the walls--a symbol of the artworks' eventual return. To hold on to sanity when the Luftwaffe's bombs began to fall, she burned to memory, brushstroke by brushstroke, these exquisite artworks: the nude figures of women, the angels, the serene Madonnas that had so shortly before gazed down upon her. She used them to furnish a "memory palace," a personal Hermitage in her mind to which she retreated to escape terror, hunger, and encroaching death. A refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . . .
Seamlessly moving back and forth in time between the Soviet Union and contemporary America, The Madonnas of Leningrad is a searing portrait of war and remembrance, of the power of love, memory, and art to offer beauty, grace, and hope in the face of overwhelming despair. Gripping, touching, and heartbreaking, it marks the debut of Debra Dean, a bold new voice in American fiction.
- The working of memory is a key theme of this novel. As a young woman, remembering the missing paintings is a deliberate act of survival and homage for Marina. In old age, however, she can no longer control what she remembers or forgets. "More distressing than the loss of words is the way that time contracts and fractures and drops her in unexpected places." How has Dean used the vagaries of Marina's memory to structure the novel? How does the narrative itself mimic the ways in which memory functions?
“[A] poetic novel.”
-San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“…this is a novel that dares to be beautiful - and fully succeeds.”
-Daily Mail (London)
“Exquisitely crafted and deeply satisfying.”
“Spare, elegant language [and] taut emotion...secure for this debut work a spot on library shelves everywhere.”
The most-recommended book of 2006
-Salt Lake City Tribune
“[A] heartfelt debut.”
-New York Times Book Review
“Elegant and poetic, the rare kind of book that you want to keep but you have to share.”
-Isabel Allende, New York Times bestselling author of ZORRO
“[A] remarkable first novel about the consolation of memory.”
-NPR Nancy Pearl Book Review
“Dean writes with passion and compelling drama about a grotesque chapter of World War II.”