The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

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Remember how just the other day I said I give books more of the benefit of the doubt lately?

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean is a fine example of that. A year ago, I may have dismissed it entirely because it seems so superficial to me. (Actually, I probably would have dismissed it as “modern trash” when I got to what I thought was a rather awkwardly written sex scene on page 25.)

This year, on the other hand, I thought it an okay novel. I’m feel like I’m just barely finding my way in the world of modern fiction, but this one met my expectations.

In the present day, Marina and her husband Dimitri attend her grandchild’s wedding, and her Alzheimer’s reaches new stages of confusion for her and for her family as she relives her months living through the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. As a part of the staff for the Hermitage, she and her aunt and uncle had lived under the museum. During the many months of starvation, she had comforted herself with the empty picture frames of the museum, reminding herself of the pictures that would someday return to their frames.

The flashbacks were confusing to me at first, and I never loved Dean’s style of writing. The entire book is written in the present tense: both flashbacks and current events. But as I became somewhat accustomed to the style, I came to appreciate the stories. The lack of tense shift accurately portrayed the confusion Marina experienced with her Alzheimer’s and it added to our own sense of confusion as to what was going on now.

I only wished that there were more to the novel.

As a short 225-page novel, Dean was unable to fully delve into either story: the siege story and the modern-day story. In the modern day, her children were trying to come to terms both with their mother’s Alzheimer’s and with the story of her past, which they had never heard in full. We saw glimpses of Marina’s daughter Helen trying to understand Marina’s condition, but it seemed that this key issue was only briefly addressed. I felt like I only got the barest introduction to Helen throughout the novel, and the book ended before there was any type of resolution. I suppose the point is that there is not a resolution to a disease like Alzheimer’s. The surviving relatives must go on without completely understanding their suffering loved one.

I’m not sure that one would want to read any more details about the horrors Marina experienced while starving in Leningrad. And yet, I likewise felt something was missing in that part of the story. I only got a glimpse of their life and I wondered a number of things, especially how she escaped the city and how she was reunited with her husband. In fact, after finishing this book, I’m most interested in learning more about the siege, for that was the most interesting part of the story to me. I felt like the siege sections ended abruptly. Again, this is probably a good indication of how Marina’s memory is working at this point: she probably can’t remember the details either. Her life all must blur together.

(Totally random side note: I also wondered about long-term health effects of the siege. I remembered reading something about the siege in Hunger, which I read a few months ago, but I can’t recall what it said about long-term effects.)

Even if the incomplete stories were an appropriate portrayal of Alzheimer’s and it’s effects, to me, it gave the novel a superficial feel, which was disappointing to me. The premise held such promise.

In the end, The Madonnas of Leningrad was a touching look at both how Alzheimer’s affects those we love and at how the siege of Leningrad impacted the people caught in it. I also liked learning about the art and seeing how the art got mixed up with reality in Marina’s mind. I did walk away from the book with a greater understanding of the issues and with a few memorable scenes in my mind. This book is about memory on many different levels, and some of the scenes Dean created are not ones I will forget easily.

Incidentally, the story of the frames being left empty is a true one: while most of the pictures were evacuated from the Hermitage during World War II, the frames were left as a promise to the people that the paintings would someday return.

If you are interested in art, the siege of Leningrad, and/or the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and memory throughout our lives, The Madonnas of Leningrad may be for you. It’s a quick and easy read, and I found it out of the ordinary, albeit a bit superficial.

I normally ask a question at the end of my reviews, but I feel like this book was so short and my thoughts about it so brief and superficial in themselves that I have nothing to ask. It does look like a lot of people have already read it, and most people don’t seem to notice any problems with in their reviews. Maybe I’m the only one that found it somewhat superficial. What did you think about this book?

Other Reviews (which are more thought-provoking than mine):

If you have reviewed The Madonnas of Leningrad on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here. I’ve only added the first ten that showed up via Google search, so make sure you let me know if you also wrote one.

Reviewed on July 10, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I actually am interested in all the things you mentioned, so I’ll keep this one in mind! It’s too bad it was superficial, though. It’s always frustrating when a novel introduces lots of themes but never really gets to the bottom of any of them.

  • Nymeth, I skimmed the other reviews I linked to and it didn’t seem like anyone else noticed it being superficial. Maybe I’m being too hard on the book. I just felt like I was getting in to the characters and the story and then it ended. I don’t know.

    Rose City Reader, I do think it’s worth reading. I’m glad I stuck with it. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts when you do get to it, of course.

    Is it the cover influencing you decision? I’m just curious. I don’t what it is about that cover, but I was so not interested in it. My mom lent it to me, though, and I felt I needed to get it back to her. Anyway, I much prefer the hardcover picture. I think it’s a lot more relevant to the story and more elegant.

  • I read a glowing review of it somewhere, and so I got it out of the library and read a whole bunch of it, and I never really got to like it. Eventually I abandoned it – I’m pleased you didn’t like it that much. It makes me feel better about not finishing it. 😛

  • Kathy, it is a great premise!

    Jenny, It’s not that I didn’t like it so much as I didn’t love it. It just could have been so much better! But I understand abandoning it. I had borrowed it from my mom and I knew she’d ask about it so I figured I might as well persevere.

  • Thanks for the link to my review…I loved this book because of its sense of place and also the fine writing. I like these short books from time to time…quite satisfying! Sorry you did not love the book, but it sounds like you are glad you read it!

  • Wendy, oh yes, I’m glad I read it. I’m looking forward to allowing myself to read more modern fiction. It is refreshing to read a short book that makes me think of things differently, even when I don’t love it!

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