26 January 2017
Thanks to our book club I'm reading more novels at any time since I was a teen/young adult. The Madonna's of Leningrad was the most recent. Set in the present and during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, The Madonna's tells the story of the elderly Marina Buriakov, who now suffers from Alzheimer's Disease. As a teen in the pre-invasion days of 1941, Marina had served as a docent in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. After spending months helping pack and dispatch some of the world's greatest works of art, Marina remains in the museum with her aunt and uncle as air raid warden and and all-around helper.
To occupy her mind, Marina works her way through different parts of the museum each day to memorize every work of art. Author Dean's ability to describe some of the museum's missing masterpieces in non-technical language is superb. As the siege continues and Leningrad experiences the record-setting cold of a winter without heating, Marina spends time with one the museum's cleaners who had worked there since it was the czars' palace. Anya prays to the many missing Madonnas for deliverance in which the unbelieving Marina eventually joins. And building on the Madonna-theme, Marina find herself pregnant from her fiance who is serving in the Soviet army.
Meanwhile in the present, Dean describes Marina's Alzheimer's from both Marina's disjointed internal perspective as well as from the points of view of her family. Dean's contrast of a once-extraordinary memory with ever-deepening forgetfulness is effective and powerful. I found it especially moving having lost a father and a mother-in-law to this disease.
At 227 pages, The Madonnas of Leningrad is relatively short. It is easy to read and will cause its readers to think more deeply about the importance of memory to personhood and to reflect with greater empathy the reality of those whose memories are disappearing as well as their families. While I don't think that Dean's The Madonnas of Leningrad was quite as moving as Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, both novels were excellent and I can heartily recommend it.