The Madonnas of Leningrad

Written by Debra Dean
Review by Vicki Kondelik

This superb first novel by author Debra Dean tells the story of Marina, a young tour guide at the Hermitage Museum during the siege of Leningrad in World War II. After her fiancé, Dmitri, is drafted into the army, Marina moves with her aunt and uncle into a shelter in the basement of the museum. By day, she helps to pack up art treasures to send them out of the city for safekeeping, while at night she stands watch on the museum’s rooftop, on the lookout for German bombers. As the horrors of the siege grow worse and worse, she commits each painting to memory, creating a “memory palace” that helps her keep her sanity amid the deprivations of war.

The story of Marina’s experiences in the siege of Leningrad alternates with chapters telling of Marina as an old woman living in the Pacific Northwest and suffering from Alzheimer’s. While her family prepares for her granddaughter’s wedding, her mind rapidly deteriorates, and at times she cannot even remember her daughter’s face, or the details of her children’s lives.

This is a beautifully-written novel, a haunting tribute to the power of memory to help us survive in the worst of times. The story of the siege and the horrors that the people of Leningrad had to endure—with many starving to death, while the survivors waited in endless lines for bread—is especially powerful. And Dean’s descriptions of the paintings make you want to visit the Hermitage.