A brilliant and moving debut novel about one woman’s struggle to preserve an artistic heritage from the horrors and destruction of World War II, and the ensuing lifelong memories from this extraordinary experience.
In this extraordinary first novel by Debra Dean, the siege of Leningrad by German troops in World War II is echoed by the destructive siege against the mind and memory of an elderly Russian woman.
Marina, the woman in question, was a guide at Leningrad's famous Hermitage Museum. In the late autumn of 1941, as the Luftwaffe roared over and around Leningrad, she and her colleagues were set the task of taking the thousands of priceless paintings, sculptures and objêts d’art out of the grand galleries of the former Tsarist Palace and storing them safely against the German bombardment and seemingly inevitable invasion.
The German assault threatened to destroy a large part of Europe’s artistic history: if Leningrad fell to the Germans, everything that was not destroyed would be looted and given to the Nazis. Marina, whose own parents had disappeared during Stalin's 1930s’ purges of intellectuals, clings to her hope of becoming an art historian herself through her job at the Hermitage.
The novel shifts between Marina’s experiences at the Hermitage during the siege of Leningrad and her current existence as a very old lady in America whose mind has begun to fray. The shifts are masterfully done: Debra Dean depicts, with subtle skill, the way Marina's mind, already ravaged by disease, picks up some incident, object or person at the wedding she's been brought to, and flips back to the dreadful year-and-a-half in Leningrad that has informed her life ever since.
An evocative and deeply moving novel about memory itself.
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‘An unforgettable story of love, survival and the power of imagination in the most tragic circumstances. Elegant and poetic, the rare kind of book that you want to keep but you have to share.’ Isabel Allende
‘A luminescent debut…“The Madonnas of Leningrad” recalls Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” and deserves similar success. This is a novel that dares to be beautiful and fully succeeds.’ Daily Mail
‘The real achievement of Dean’s novel lies beyond descriptions of Alzheimer’s, sensitive and elegantly done though they are…[Dean] has brought the siege of Leningrad to dramatic, desperate life…this breathtaking novel shows that epiphanies can take place anywhere.’ Guardian
‘A taut and boldly unsentimental tale, Dean’s glistening debut plumbs the twin mysteries of memory and the imagination.’ Observer
‘An extraordinary debut, a deeply lovely novel that evokes with uncommon deftness the terrible, heartbreaking beauty that is life in wartime…Dean’s exquisite prose shimmers with a haunting glow, illuminating us to the notion that art itself is perhaps our most necessary nourishment.’ Chang-Rae Lee, New York Times Bestselling author of ‘Aloft’.
‘Vibrant…Dean, making her debut, weaves Marina’s past and present together effortlessly…Memory, the hopes one pins on it and the letting go one must do around it all take on real poignancy, giving the story a satisfying fullness.’ Publishers Weekly
'As we shift back and forth between her vivid memories of that time and particularly of the artwork that she guarded with her life, and her present-day existence seen dimly through the veil of Alzheimer's, the tragedy of both her past and her present becomes apparent.' Sunday Business Post
'”The Madonnas of Leningrad” recalls Jonathan Franzen's “The Corrections”, and deserves similar success. This is a novel that dares to be beautiful – and fully succeeds. The suggestively-named Marina is a wonderful creation, and through her eyes we are invited to gaze again on the best of Rubens, Da Vinci and Rembrandt. Yet Dean's prose is anything but purple, a fact that makes this quiet yet resonant novel more impressive still.' Stephanie Cross, Daily Mail
'A beautifully painted debut that has 'book group' and 'Anthony Minghella' written all over it.' SHE
'Every once in a while a new book comes along with the power to halt you in your tracks – “The Madonnas of Leningrad” is just such a book. Breathtaking and heartbreaking by turns. This is Dean's first novel and it is an accomplished debut.' Waterstones Books Quarterly
'Dean has moments of brilliance…a pretty impressive debut.' Financial TimesFrom the Author:
About the Book
A Public Broadcasting Service Series, A Grandmother with
In 1995, I watched a Public Broadcasting Service series on the Hermitage
Museum in Saint Petersburg. My journal entry for the next day read in part:
"I was particularly struck by one incident which might make a story (even a
novel, but for the research)." During the first winter that the Nazis lay
siege to Leningrad, the Hermitage staff and their families--nearly 2000
people--lived in the basement of the museum itself. In the first days of
the war, they had packed up and evacuated all the art--1.1 million
objects--but they had left the empty frames hanging on the walls of the
museum as a token of their pledge that the art would return. A story was
related that one of the staff, a former guide now living in the cellar,
began to give tours of the empty museum to visitors. It was said that he
described the paintings so well that the visitors could almost see them.
This image gripped me. Still, I was a short-story writer and even my short
stories tended toward the brevity of poems, so the prospect of writing
something the size of a novel terrified me. Let alone a novel set in a
country that I had never visited [...] and during a tumultuous period about
which I knew next to nothing. Throw in a foreign language and some art
history on top of that, and I dismissed the notion as far exceeding any
reasonable hubris. I tried writing it as a short story, but this world was
too expansive to be contained in the short form. I set it aside. Every once
in a while, I would return wistfully and rework it a little, adding a few
pages or moving pieces around.
Meanwhile, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. A woman who had
resolutely focused forward throughout her life, she began in her dotage to
drift back to her youth. She told stories that I had never heard before,
some of them beginning quite plausibly and then segueing suspiciously into
magical realism. (A nice topaz pendant that a great niece had admired
spiraled in value and became a rare heirloom that strangers sometimes
dropped by and paid money to see.) I started writing about her, but quickly
she metamorphosed into a fictional character, a Russian woman who had
survived the siege. Before I knew it, there we were again, back in the
museum during the war.
The Madonnas of Leningrad was researched and written over several summers
between teaching. During most of that time, I and my husband, a poet, lived
in a sweet little apartment[.] with a sweeping view of the city and the
lake but with not quite enough room for an office. So we set up shop in the
windowless laundry room that we shared with the neighbors, our desk wedged
between the garbage cans and the hot water furnace--not so different from
the cellars of the Hermitage during the war perhaps, but decidedly warmer
with the dryer humming. He worked in the mornings and I took the
afternoons. The novel was written slowly, circuitously, and without
expectations. Eat breakfast, go for a long walk, write another page or two,
make dinner, watch a movie. Repeat.
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Book Description William Morrow, 2006. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. First Edition. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0060825308
Book Description William Morrow, 2006. Book Condition: New. Brand New, Unread Copy in Perfect Condition. A+ Customer Service! Summary: In this sublime debut novel, set amid the horrors of the siege of Leningrad in World War II, a gifted writer explores the power of memory to save . . . and betray. Bookseller Inventory # ABE_book_new_0060825308
Book Description William Morrow, 2006. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0060825308
Book Description William Morrow, 2006. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # P110060825308