The Madonnas of Leningrad
by Debra Dean

Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN 0060825316.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 04/17/2007

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Literary

Alzheimer's, the Siege of Leningrad, being alone on a strange island—how could these subject add up to what Isabel Allende calls, "An unforgettable story of love, survival, and the power of imagination in the most tragic circumstances. Elegant and poetic, the rare kind of book that you want to keep but you have to share."

Allende says it so well, that, perhaps I need say no more, but perhaps a few more words. I work with older adults who are in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, one of the most dreaded possible outcomes of aging. The people I work with certainly have problems with their memories, especially short term memory, but they continue to enjoy conversations, reminiscing, music and art. I would like to think their journey is like Marina's, the heroine of Madonnas of Leningrad.

Marina and Dima live in Seattle and on the weekend which opens the book, they are headed to one of the near-by islands for the wedding of their granddaughter. They didn't always live in Seattle. They met in Marina's new school when they were both eleven after her parents had been arrested by the secret police in Russia. He protected her and taught her to be quietly defiant. They remained friends until the evening before he headed off to fight the Germans. He asked her to marry him when he returned and they became lovers that night, then he was gone.

Debra Dean's story weaves back and forth between the present and the Siege of Leningrad by the Germans. Her vignettes of the rooms in the Hermitage in Leningrad are startlingly vivid, especially when one realizes that the young Marina is reenacting her tours from memory as she faces the empty frames of the great art which has been sent to safe keeping in the event that the Germans reach Leningrad.

Is the Marina who sits on the ferry on her way to the wedding remembering what we read? Is she remembering the vivid details even as she gazes absently at the water? Even as she wonders who the woman next to her is until the woman calls her Mama. Of course, she remembers, Helen, Elana.

Marina is conscious that "[o]ne of the effects of this deterioration 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. She tried once to point out to Dimitri the bottomless beauty in her glass of tea. It looked like amber with buried embers of light and when held just so, there was a rainbow in the glass that took her breath away."

The day of the wedding, Marina sits on the patio of the hotel and finds herself seeing figures from the past. "Marina reaches for [her daughter-in-law] Naureen's hand and grips it tightly in her own. More distressing than the loss of words is the way that time contracts and fractures and drops her in unexpected places."

In the Hermitage, many of the paintings had religious themes and many of them included the Madonna. When Marina accompanied one of the older women, Anya, through the dark and empty halls, Anya would often stop and pray in front of frames which had held different Madonnas. And although Marina felt religion was for the masses, she too began furtively offering prayers. Life did seem to become more bearable. She survived and many others did not.

Dimitri, whose love for Marina never fades, finds that "she is leaving him, not all at once, which would be painful enough, but in a wrenching succession of separations. One moment she is here, and then she is gone again, and each journey takes her a little farther from his reach. He cannot follow her, and he wonders where she goes when she leaves." Perhaps she returns to the Hermitage and the multitudes of Madonnas offering comfort and compassion.

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