Book Review: The Madonnas of Leningrad

Last week I finished reading The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean.   I’d always been interested in reading this book because Dean is a Seattle author and I happened to be in Seattle when her book was released.  I remember sitting in the window of my room on the eighth floor of the Red Lion Hotel, and reading a review of the book.

Of such emotional memories and connections are desires to read books born.

I picked the book up a couple times in the bookstore but never actually bought it.  But then my friend Julie read it and raved about how much she loved it and so when she was finished I borrowed it from her. 

I read it relatively quickly, for me, as I am generally reading several books at once.  (For instance, I’m currently reading The 3 Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau, The Yoga of Discipline by Swami Chidvilasananda, and re-reading The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Do we detect a theme here?)  And while there was much that I did like about the book, I was a bit disappointed in it, also.

Perhaps my disappointment speaks more to the power of expectation than anything else.  Because I expected to love the book I had developed a bit of a pre-conceived notion about it that wasn’t borne out.  So hence my disappointment. 

The book has a sure-fire, high-concept premise.  It tells the story of the Siege of Leningrad, during World War II, through the eyes of Marina, an employee of the Hermitage Museum.   The amazing backstory to the novel is that, as the Germans closed in on the city of Leningrad employees of the museum packed away all the precious pieces of art in this huge museum and put it on trains or trucks to be taken to safety.  The story goes that they removed paintings from their frames, leaving the frames on the wall to signify that some day the paintings would be returned.

Not only that, but thousands of the city’s residents took refuge in the basement of the museum, where many of them perished from hunger or the brutal cold. 

The structure of the book is clever and well done, with Marina, now an old woman living in Seattle and struggling with Alzheimer’s.   She can’t remember what to do with the fork she is holding in her hand, but she can, and does, remember the winter she spent in the Hermitage museum, working on packing the artwork and trying to survive.  One of the "Madonnas" who has worked at the museum for many years, teaches Marina how to create a "memory palace" in her mind.  Going room by room in the Hermitage, she describes to Marina each of the artworks that used to be there, telling her that somebody must retain the memory of them in order to keep them alive.

The themes of memory and imagination and love and survival resonate throughout the whole book.  Oh, and it is beautifully written.  As someone who has written a lot about art, I appreciated Debra Dean’s gorgeous descriptions of the artworks. 

I did like the book, I wasn’t just rip-roaringly in love with it.  There was a sense of distance that surprised me, perhaps because of the distance between the current-day Marina and the events she remembers.  And Marina’s contemporary daughter, Helen, had far less of a character arc than I would have expected.   But, overall, it is worth the read.  As a fellow writer, I admired the craftsmanship of the story–the afore-mentioned description and also the way she structured the plot and kept it clear and cohesive.   There was a dream-like feel to the Russian segments of the novel, perhaps because they were Marina’s memories.  But what was missing for me was simply a strong emotional attachment to the characters.  During that long, bitter winter, many people died, including many that Marina was close to.  But so many of them died that after awhile it was business as usual and there was little emotional impact from any of it.

Still, the book is a good novel.  If you are interested in getting an idea about how extensive and vast the Hermitage truly is, watch Russian Ark.  This film was shot all in one continuous take inside the museum, featuring a cast of thousands.  It theoretically recreates the last great Winter Ball that was held in the museum and it is full of amazing images.  Watching it, I had no idea what was going on, because nothing is explained, but damn, it is a stellar film.

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