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The Madonnas of Leningrad

Cover of The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of Leningrad

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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. . . .

Includes an excerpt from Debra Deans The Mirrored World.

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. . . .

Includes an excerpt from Debra Deans The Mirrored World.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    This way, please. We are standing in the Spanish Skylight Hall. The three skylight halls were designed to display the largest canvases in the collection. Look up. The huge vault and frieze are like a wedding cake, with molded and gilt arabesques. Light streams down on parquet floors the color of wheat, and the walls are painted a rich red in imitation of the original cloth covering. Each of the skylight halls is decorated with exquisite vases, standing candelabra, and tabletops made of semiprecious stones in the Russian mosaic technique.

    Over here, to our left, is a table with a heavy white cloth. Three Spanish peasants are eating lunch. The fellow in the center is raising the decanter of wine and offering us a drink. Clearly, they are enjoying themselves. Their luncheon is light—a dish of sardines, a pomegranate, and a loaf of bread—but it is more than enough. A whole loaf of bread, and white bread at that, not the blockade bread that is mostly wood shavings.

    The other residents of the museum are allotted only three small chunks of bread each day. Bread the size and color of pebbles. And sometimes frozen potatoes, potatoes dug from a garden at the edge of the city. Before the siege, Director Orbeli ordered great quantities of linseed oil to repaint the walls of the museum. We fry bits of potato in the linseed oil. Later, when the potatoes and oil are gone, we make a jelly out of the glue used to bind frames and eat that.

    The man on the right, giving us a thumbs-up, is probably the artist. Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez. This is from his early Seville period, a type of painting called bodegones, "scenes in taverns."

    It is as though she has been transported into a two-dimensional world, a book perhaps, and she exists only on this page. When the page turns, whatever was on the previous page disappears from her view.

    Marina finds herself standing in front of the kitchen sink, holding a saucepan of water. But she has no idea why. Is she rinsing the pan? Or has she just finished filling it up? It is a puzzle. Sometimes it requires all her wits to piece together the world with the fragments she is given: an open can of Folgers, a carton of eggs on the counter, the faint scent of toast. Breakfast. Has she eaten? She cannot recall. Well, does she feel hungry or full? Hungry, she decides. And here is the miracle of five white eggs nested in a foam carton. She can almost taste the satiny yellow of the yolks on her tongue. Go ahead, she tells herself, eat.

    When her husband, Dmitri, comes into the kitchen carrying the dirty breakfast dishes, she is poaching more eggs.

    "What are you doing?" he asks.

    She notes the dishes in his hands, the smear of dried yolk in a bowl, the evidence that she has eaten already, perhaps no more than ten minutes ago.

    "I'm still hungry." In fact, her hunger has vanished, but she says it nonetheless.

    Dmitri sets down the dishes and takes the pan from her hands, sets it down on the counter also. His dry lips graze the back of her neck, and then he steers her out of the kitchen.

    "The wedding," he reminds her. "We need to get dressed. Elena called from the hotel and she's on her way."

    "Elena is here?"

    "She arrived late last night, remember?"

    Marina has no recollection of seeing her daughter, and she feels certain she couldn't forget this.

    "Where is she?"

    "She spent the night at the airport. Her flight was delayed."

    "Has she come for the wedding?"

    "Yes."

    There is a wedding this weekend, but she can't recall the couple who is marrying. Dmitri says she has met them, and it's not that she doubts him, but...

    "Now, who is getting married?" she asks.

    "Katie, Andrei's girl. To Cooper."

    Katie is her granddaughter.

About the Author-
  • Debra Dean worked as an actor in New York theater for nearly a decade before opting for the life of a writer and teacher. She and her husband now live in Miami, where she teaches at the University at Miami. She is at work on her second novel.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 21, 2005
    Russian emigré Marina Buriakov, 82, is preparing for her granddaughter's wedding near Seattle while fighting a losing battle against Alzheimer's. Stuggling to remember whom Katie is marrying (and indeed that there is to be a marriage at all), Marina does remember her youth as a Hermitage Museum docent as the siege of Leningrad began; it is into these memories that she disappears. After frantic packing, the Hermitage's collection is transported to a safe hiding place until the end of the war. The museum staff and their families remain, wintering (all 2,000 of them) in the Hermitage basement to avoid bombs and marauding soldiers. Marina, using the technique of a fellow docent, memorizes favorite Hermitage works; these memories, beautifully interspersed, are especially vibrant. Dean, making her debut, weaves Marina's past and present together effortlessly. The dialogue around Marina's forgetfulness is extremely well done, and the Hermitage material has depth. Although none of the characters emerges particularly vividly (Marina included), 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.

  • San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

    "[A] poetic novel."

  • New York Times Book Review

    "[A] heartfelt debut."

  • Isabel Allende, New York Times bestselling author of ZORRO

    "Elegant and poetic, the rare kind of book that you want to keep but you have to share."

  • Library Journal

    "Spare, elegant language [and] taut emotion...secure for this debut work a spot on library shelves everywhere."

  • Oakland Tribune

    "Exquisitely crafted and deeply satisfying."

  • NPR Nancy Pearl Book Review

    "[A] remarkable first novel about the consolation of memory."

  • Salt Lake City Tribune

    The most-recommended book of 2006

  • Daily Mail (London)

    "...this is a novel that dares to be beautiful - and fully succeeds."

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The Madonnas of Leningrad
Debra Dean
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