So many books have been written about WWII that it seems impossible for anyone to have a fresh perspective on the subject. Perhaps that's why Debra Dean's The Madonnas of Leningrad is so striking. Whatever the reason, this finely-crafted first novel is unforgettable.
The star of the novel is Marina Buriakov, an 82-year-old Russian immigrant, teetering on the brink of full-fledged Alzheimer's. Her story swings between present day --as she attends her granddaughter's wedding -- and her days as a young woman in war-torn Leningrad. Before the war, Marina wored as a tour guide at The Hermitage art museum, a job she loved. When war breaks out, her happy existence is shattered; she is forced to huddle in the cellars with the rest of the museum staff, ekeing out a bleak life that is increasingly endangered by lack of food, heat and other necessities. As she works with the other museum employees to pack treasured artwork for transport out of the besieged city, Marina concentrates on memorizing the pieces. Her memory of richly colored, vivid paintings stands in sharp contrast to the dark, cold world outside the museum. Although Marina and her fiancee (a soldier) survive the war, they bury their painful memories, travel to the U.S. and start new lives. Now, as Marina's mind is ravaged by disease, her daughter, Helen, realizes how little she knows her mother. The reader, like Helen, soon realizes that Marina Buriakov is a woman worth knowing, and admiring.
Dean's literary power lies in her descriptive abilities. She is especially effective at contrasting different elements, such as the priceless museum paintings and the bleak, cold world of Leningrad. The imagery is so strong that it stays in the readers head long after he/she has closed the book. It's not a feel-good book, but it is an amazingly powerful, heart-wrenching one, that should not be missed.
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