Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Look Review "The Madonnas of Leningrad"

“The Madonnas of Leningrad”
The painful lament of 82 year old Marina’s husband strikes a chord with all of us who have seen a loved one develop Alzheimer’s disease – also known as the long goodbye. "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."

Marina goes back in her memory to Leningrad during the German siege. As a young woman she was a docent at the Hermitage Museum before the war. She then spent 90 months of cold and hunger in the cellar of the museum during the famous siege of her city. After crating and hiding the famous paintings, statues and thousands of irreplaceable treasures, the museum staff and their families took shelter under the museum – all 2,000 of them. The frames were left on the walls as symbols of hope that the paintings would soon return. But the weeks stretched into months and many died from starvation. One of the elderly attendants at the museum teaches Marina how to build a “memory palace” to keep an accurate catalog of the missing treasures. As she wanders between the empty cavernous galleries, the vacant frames are filled by her memories of title, artist, color and composition.

One of the most poignant scenes occurs as spring arrives in Leningrad and Marina takes a group of young military cadets on a tour of the bare, dripping Hermitage Museum. As she passionately describes each glowing painting from her memory palace, a wondrous thing happens to the little tour group. Everyone can see the paintings through her eyes as she sketches on the blank walls. And then we are back to the present, and Marina’s tragic Alzheimer’s locks the door to the museum forever.

The author Debra Dean takes the reader between Marina’s present-day confusion at her granddaughter’s wedding in the Northwest, and her clear memories of the terrible winter of 1941 in Russia. It is a love story about Marina and her family and Marina and the art of the Hermitage Museum. My only complaint was that it was a little too short, and I was left wanting more of the story of the Leningrad siege. It is a great debut novel with the caution that there is one scene of intimacy between Marina and her fiancé that is explicit. Skip that passage if you want to and still enjoy a very well-written book.

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