THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD

Debra Dean

Seamlessly moving back and forth in time between the Soviet Union in the 1940s and contemporary America, The Madonnas of Leningrad is a searing portrait of war and remembrance, of the power of love, memory, and art to offer hope in the face of overwhelming despair. It is the story of Marina, an aging Russian woman caught in the grips of Alzheimer’s. While she cannot retain fresh memories, vivid images of her youth in Leningrad and the toturous German siege are preserved. To hold on to sanity when the Luftwaffe’s bombing began, she burned to memory the exquisite artworks of the Hermitage where she worked as a guide using them to furnish a “memory palace”

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Seamlessly moving back and forth in time between the Soviet Union in the 1940s and contemporary America, The Madonnas of Leningrad is a searing portrait of war and remembrance, of the power of love, memory, and art to offer hope in the face of overwhelming despair. It is the story of Marina, an aging Russian woman caught in the grips of Alzheimer’s. While she cannot retain fresh memories, vivid images of her youth in Leningrad and the toturous German siege are preserved. To hold on to sanity when the Luftwaffe’s bombing began, she burned to memory the exquisite artworks of the Hermitage where she worked as a guide using them to furnish a “memory palace” – a personal museum in her mind to which she retreated to escape the terror. A refuge that would stay buried within her, until she needed it once more . . . .

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  • Harper Perennial
  • Paperback
  • February 2007
  • 256 Pages
  • 9780060825317

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About Debra Dean

Debra Dean worked as an actor in the New York theater for nearly a decade before opting for the life of a writer and teacher. She lives with her husband in Seattle, Washington.

Praise

“Elegant and poetic, the rare kind of book that you want to keep but you have to share.”
— Isabel Allende, bestselling author of ZORRO

“Dean writes with passion and compelling drama about a grotesque chapter of World War II.”
— People

Discussion Questions

The working of memory is a key theme of this novel. As a young woman, remembering the missing paintings is a deliberate act of survival and homage for Marina. In old age, however, she can no longer control what she remembers or forgets. “More distressing than the loss of words is the way that time contracts and fractures and drops her in unexpected places.” How has Dean used the vagaries of Marina’s memory to structure the novel? How does the narrative itself mimic the ways in which memory functions?

Sometimes, Marina finds consolations within the loss of her short-term memory. “One of the effects of this deterioration seems to be that as the scope of her attention narrows, it also focuses like a magnifying glass on smaller pleasures that have escaped her notice for years.” Is aging merely an accumulation of deficits or are there gifts as well?

The historical period of The Madonnas of Leningrad begins with the outbreak of war. How is war portrayed in this novel? How is this view of World War II different from or similar to other accounts you have come across?

Even though she says of herself that she is not a “believer,” in what ways is Marina spiritual? How does her spirituality compare with conventional religious belief? How do religion and miracles figure in this novel? What are the miracles that occur in The Madonnas of Leningrad?

A central mystery revolves around Andre’s conception. Marina describes a remarkable incident on the roof of the Hermitage when one of the statues from the roof of the Palace, “a naked god,” came to life, though she later discounts this as a hallucination. In her dotage, she tells her daughter-in-law that Andre’s father is Zeus. Dmitri offers other explanations: she may have been raped by a soldier or it’s possible that their only coupling before he went off to the front resulted in a son. What do you think actually happened? Is it a flaw or a strength of the novel that the author doesn’t resolve this question?

In a sense, the novel has two separate but parallel endings: the young Marina giving the cadets a tour of the museum, and the elderly Marina giving the carpenter a tour of an unfinished house. What is the function of this coda? How would the novel be different if it ended with the cadets’ tour?