the madonnas of leningradThe Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean (2006

My sister-in-law’s grandparents were awarded medals for their bravery in sneaking out at night across the frozen river for potatoes during the 1941-42 siege of
Leningrad. I have myself wandered through the Hermitage, Leningrad’s unsurpassed art gallery. And I recognize the Alzheimer’s tsunami scattering my contemporaries’ minds – don’t ask for details! Debra Dean has interwoven these three themes in this mesmerizing book. The horrors of the siege are conveyed through the experiences of the gallery staff, storing paintings and people in the nethermost basement to avoid nightly German bombing. There isn’t enough food. There is no water supply – only thawed ice. There is no heating. There are no medicines. And the galleries are artless, adorned with empty frames. Marina, main protagonist and eventual Alzheimer’s victim, survives by reinstalling in their vacant places the Madonna paintings. She walks the arcades, forcing her imagination to visualize each painting in every detail: Velazquez, Gainsborough, Fragonard, Caraffe, Giorgione, Spada, Caracci, diLorenzo, Martini, daVinci, Rembrandt, Raphael, Rubens, Titian, vanDyke, Caravaggio, Murillo, Zurbaran. Dean intersperses the Hermitage episodes with Marina’s granddaughter’s American wedding two generations later. Marina’s Alzheimer’s provides heartbreaking recollections and connections. Her distant past is preserved. Leningrad moments appear. Her present existence is shattered into
totally independent experiences. I found The Madonnas of Leningrad sobering, enriching, rewarding.

Reviewed by Martin Waldron