Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Madonnas of Leningrad ~ by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad ~ by Debra Dean, 2006, fiction

This way, please, to the Siege of Leningrad ... and to the edges of memory in the mind of a woman with Alzheimer's. As she loses recent events, Marina's memories are fresh and vivid of the days when she helped to save the Hermitage Museum's exquisite art before they could be destroyed by German Junkers dropping incendiary bombs.

The characters in this book are all attending an outdoor wedding, except for Marina, who is reliving the starvation and bitter cold of Leningrad. She is on the Museum's rooftop, watching the planes approach, hearing the explosions, standing in the darkness of a city of scattered fires, and looking at the empty frames now-stored masterpieces, seeing them all again. And she is thinking:
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. (p. 161)
Marina, a docent who guided visitors through the Museum before World War Two, now thinks of the people in the paintings as her friends. She can't understand why her husband Dmitri looks so old, except that starvation and harsh winters and deprivation has made them all so frail. And Marina wanders away from their hotel room wearing only her nightgown, following her routines of the war years, looking at walls and remembering what is in each masterpiece. This madonna is different from that madonna, see the figure over in the corner? And Marina tells the visitors, "Look up. The huge vault and frieze are like a wedding cake, with molded and gilt arabesques. Light streams down on parquet floors the color of wheat, and the walls are painted a rich red in imitation of the original cloth covering. Each of the skylight halls is decorated with exquisite vases, standing candelabra, and tabletops made of semiprecious stones in the Russian mosaic technique" (p. 1).

The Alba Madonna by Raphael is shown (above) in its place. Marina is still there in the Museum, still escorting tourists through the rooms, still reciting her memorized words, still seeing the paintings that have been taken from their frames and hauled away for safety. As I followed her, I could see them too. Rated 10/10, loved it, couldn't put it down.
Wendy's review


Marg said...

I read this not too long ago, and quite liked it although not as much as you! For me there were a couple of unanswered questions.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

What were your unanswered questions, Marg? Marina's Alzheimer's disease was what drew me in so completely; when my mother died two-and-a-half years ago, she no longer knew any of us and I often wondered what she was thinking. One of her earlier symptoms was conflating two different times in the stories she told people, saying, for instance, that my dad came through World War Two unscathed and was killed in traffic "a week after he got home." Well, no, it was 19 years later that he died, having had another child and six grandchildren in that interval. She outlived him by another 40 years, and there were twelve grandchildren and 20-some great-grandchildren by then.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Marg, I found the answer to my question in your review of this book: "Where it did fall down a bit though for me was that there were several things raised that we never got answers for, and there were significant events that were just explained in a paragraph and that was it! For example we find out that Marina's husband had been a Prisoner of War, and there is literally a one sentence explanation of how Marina and he had been miraculously reunited completely by chance at the end of the war."


Maybe we didn't learn more about these events because Marina's mind didn't go there, thus revealing lapses in her memory. Or maybe it wasn't that way at all and Marina has put together pieces of memory to come up with something that didn't happen, as with my mother's "logical" merging of two separate memories. Or maybe you're right that the author is still learning, but the book DID give me some good insights into the thinking of Alzheimer's patients.

Marg said...

Oh certainly, the description of the effects of Alzheimers were very good.


One of the major unanswered questions for me was who was the father of her child???? A ghostly presence on the roof? I get that hunger would have been playing on her mind, but it didn't seem that she was raped but yet there was no clarity around that situation! Couldn't get my head around that one!

Anonymous said...

Re comment by Marg (4-30-07):
You weren't supposed to get your head around it (how Marina got pregnant). Could it have been a miraculous conception? Was Marina yet another Madonna of Leningrad?

Clearly the author wanted to tease us with this possibility. It didn't matter if we knew the "truth".

I really liked that.

Initially, I was reluctant to get into a book about Alzheimer's. But I found the conclusion actually inspiring. I loved the book and can't recommend it enough.

Helen's Book Blog said...

Thank you for sending me to your review Bonnie. I'll confess I've skimmed it so I don't ruin the story for myself since I am only at the beginning.