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.