The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean, William Morrow, 2006, 228 pp
I have had this book on my list to read ever since I first heard of it. Then the reading group at Once Upon A Time picked it for our January, 2010 read. It is beautifully written, very moving and because much of the story takes place during the World War II Siege of Leningrad, the starving people ate that "candy" made from book glue just like they did in City of Thieves.
Marina was taken in by her aunt and uncle at the age of 11, after both of her parents were arrested during a purge in Communist Russia. At school, she was befriended by Dimitri, whose father had also been arrested. By the time war with Germany started, the two were lovers and on the eve of Dimitri's departure as a soldier, they became engaged.
Throughout the years of war and the siege, Marina worked as a docent and tour guide at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, which housed one the world's largest collections of art. Once the Nazis put the city under siege, museum workers and their families actually lived in the basement there. Marina helped pack up all the paintings and small objects which were taken away to secret hiding places.
The book tells Marina's story from her memories of that time, which come back to her in flashes as she succumbs to Alzheimer's in her last years. She and Dimitri are living in Seattle and have two grown children, so clearly they survived the war, found each other and emigrated to America. In lovely spare portraits of those war times, Debra Dean reveals the tale.
In part, Marina retained her sanity during the fear, hunger, cold and desperation of the siege by recalling the portraits which had hung on the museum's walls and which she knew and loved so well. She would walk the rooms, repeating to herself the talks she used to give to visitors. We, the readers, are now the recipients of these talks, as the author make us see the paintings through the prose. It is an admirable feat.
Some of the story is perhaps improbable but it is so wonderfully rendered. The horrors are embellished with linguistic artifice, much the way that paintings with their light, shadows and colors, preserve the events and objects of life. I fell willingly into Debra Dean's creation. She made me believe that art, beauty and love are what we create and what get us through the worst times. These elements are also what remain in the failing memory of Marina.
(The Madonnas of Leningrad is available in paperback on the adult fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)