The Madonnas of Leningrad is a two-fold story from the perspective of Marina, a docent at the State Hermitage Museum and survivor of the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. Debra Dean writes compellingly as both young Marina living through a Russian winter in the museum’s basement and as aging Marina, who can’t remember her grand-daughter’s name or why she’s at this wedding. The novel returns frequently to Marina during the war, as she and an elderly docent walk their old tour-routes in the museum. They try to remember the paintings that have long since been whisked to safety by creating a memory palace in their minds. I was expecting a book focused on the Hermitage holdings and the horrors of living through the siege when I started Madonnas. Instead, I found themes like memory, aging, loss, and death explored in unexpectedly profound ways.
Dean’s use of alternating perspectives – which eventually bleed together – was an extremely effective tool for communicating dementia. The constant juxtaposition between young Marina – who bravely walked the Museum’s galleries, watched for fires from the roof, or fell in love in a park – with the aging Marina, was unsettling. It forced the reader to see what we often forget: the elderly were once young and one day we’ll be just like them.
While I enjoyed the book overall, there were certain drawbacks that keep Madonnas from rising with the best historical fiction. Scattered throughout the novel I found Dean returning to a them of delusional sexual fantasies, which were neither fulfilling nor plot driving. These few scenes were unclear and made for somewhat jarring interruptions in and otherwise fluid narrative. I think the vignettes were to illustrate the effects of extreme fatigue and hunger suffered by victims of the siege but they were too unresolved to be effective.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and a unique storytelling approach. If you are looking for a happy-go-lucky read filled with sunshine and a happy ending, this is most certainly not your book. Anyone interested in World War II history and the effects on the citizens of Russia would probably also enjoy The Madonnas of Leningrad. I closed the book very interested in where all those paintings ended up and just what exactly the Hermitage had in its collection.