The Madonnas of Leningrad

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9780060825300: The Madonnas of Leningrad

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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Product Description:

Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina's grip on the everyday. An elderly Russian woman now living in America, she cannot hold on to fresh memories the details of her grown children's lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild yet her distant past is miraculously preserved in her mind's eye.

Vivid images of her youth in war-torn Leningrad arise unbidden, carrying her back to the terrible fall of 1941, when she was a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum and the German army's approach signaled the beginning of what would be a long, torturous siege on the city. As the people braved starvation, bitter cold, and a relentless German onslaught, Marina joined other staff members in removing the museum's priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, leaving the frames hanging empty on the walls to symbolize the artworks' eventual return. As the Luftwaffe's bombs pounded the proud, stricken city, Marina built a personal Hermitage in her mind a refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . . . "

Review:

‘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 Times

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