The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I had an interesting conversation recently with a resident of a retirement village where I held a reading and discussion of my book, Motherless Soul. She spoke of the memories of her youth and how those recollections became clearer as she aged. She called this fact a “gift.”
The Madonnas of Leningrad is about this “gift.” Marina, a woman suffering with dementia, is getting ready for a trip to her granddaughter's wedding. But Marina keeps slipping back and forth between her life in the present time and the life she led as a young woman during the World War II Siege of Leningrad.
Although I can understand the definition of these intense memories held by the woman I talked to at the retirement home, the life Marina slipped back to was far from pleasant. The Germans barricaded and bombed the city. During a cold, Russian winter, people were living in the shells of buildings without much to protect them from the environment. Marina was fortunate enough to live with her uncle in the basement of the Hermitage museum where she worked, but they suffered from the cold there as well. The German bombers targeted the warehouses with supplies for the city, so soon starvation was killing many more people than the bombs themselves.
Despite the horrors of dementia and war that are covered by this book, it is ultimately about beauty and that's what makes it such a wonderful story. The art in the Hermitage is removed from the walls of the museum. Some pieces are stored in the basement to protect them from the bombs, but most have been transported out of the city. Marina and Anya, an older friend who is also living in the Hermitage, form a pact to remember the art. They walk through the empty rooms of the museum, talking to each other about the work that once hung on the walls. They are worried that if it is forgotten it will never matter.
There are so many wonderful things going on in this book. It is the story of a love that persists through both war and old age. Marina waits for Dmitri as he fights against the German army, then, when they are older and living in America, Dmitri patiently waits for Marina as she slips in and out of her present life. It is also the story of the beauty of culture. Marina's love for art is great enough to pull her through the horrors of war.
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