Friday, August 22, 2008

Review: The Madonnas of Leningrad

Summary: Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina's grip on the everyday. An elderly Russian woman now living in America, she cannot hold on to fresh memories—the details of her grown children's lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild—yet her distant past is miraculously preserved in her mind's eye.

Vivid images of her youth in war-torn Leningrad arise unbidden, carrying her back to the terrible fall of 1941, when she was a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum and the German army's approach signaled the beginning of what would be a long, torturous siege on the city. As the people braved starvation, bitter cold, and a relentless German onslaught, Marina joined other staff members in removing the museum's priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, leaving the frames hanging empty on the walls to symbolize the artworks' eventual return. As the Luftwaffe's bombs pounded the proud, stricken city, Marina built a personal Hermitage in her mind—a refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . . . -- Harper Perennial

A huge thanks goes out to Book Club Girl for sharing THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD by Debra Dean with me. I have seen this book everywhere and I've had it on my "Need to Read" list for quite awhile; but it wasn't until she selected this book and the author for the topic of her next Blog Talk Radio show (I just love participating in these discussions) that I actually took the time to read it. Based on the book's description, I just knew that I was going to enjoy the story; and I certainly was not disappointed. This was a terrific read!

I'm not even sure how to express how much I loved this book. I was so incredibly touched by the story of Marina and her family, both now and during the Nazi invasion of Leningrad during WWII. I have to say that I really wasn't aware of how devastating this invasion was to the people of Leningrad; and as a result, I learned so much about this period of history from this book. I was extremely impressed with the author's thorough research on the Hermitage Museum and it's holdings. The author's descriptions of the building and the artwork were just amazing -- I could vividly picture each room and painting.

In addition to all of the historical references, I thought the author also did a wonderful job in writing about Marina's Alzheimer's as well as how the family coped with this difficult situation. To me, this book ultimately was about the importance of memory in all of our lives. Part of Marina's ability to survive the horrors she faced were based in her challenge to "remember" each of the valuable pieces of artwork and where they were placed in the museum. How ironic and tragic it must have been to eventually lose that ability to remember the important events and people in her life.

I was pretty much blown away by Ms. Dean's writing -- the book's prose was so beautiful. I am definitely impressed that this is Ms. Dean's debut novel; and I will be anxious to read more of her books in the future. If my review doesn't convince you about how special this book is, you should check out some of the reviews as well as the numerious awards that the book has received. There is also an interview with Ms. Dean from Publishers Weekly that I found very interesting.

The paperback edition of THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD was published by Harper Perennial so the book included the P.S. Insights, Interviews & More section in the back. I just adore the bonus materials available in these books. Each book that I've read with the P.S. section has added a great deal to my "reading experience;" and this book was no exception. Ms. Dean's bio was interesting, as was her essay on her visit to Saint Petersburg (it's amazing that she didn't visit the city until after she finished the book); but I was fascinated with the section about how she came up with the idea for this story. She saw a documentary on PBS about the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg where she learned about a guide who gave tours of the empty museum during the Nazi seige. In the meantime, her grandmother was suffering from Alzheimer's and kept bringing up memories of her youth -- some more realistic than others. She drew from both of these experiences to create the storyline for this book. I found this to be extremely interesting.

I highly recommend selecting THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD for a future book club choice. This book would be perfect to discuss with a bunch of friends. There are so many levels to this book, and I guarantee that everyone who reads this book will be touched by Marina's story. I particularly found the symbolism in this book to be very interesting and would love to discuss it with others who have read the book. There is a reader's guide available here if you want to take a look at the questions. In addition, if you want to learn more about this amazing story, Book Club Girl interviewed Ms. Dean last night on Blog Talk Radio -- check it out. It was so interesting to hear Ms. Dean's story about how this book came to be.

Also reviewed at:
Age 30 - A Year in Books
Life and Times of a "New" New Yorker
Reading Adventures
Book Chatter and other stuff
Peeking Between the Pages


Cheryl said...

I have not seen this book all over the place but it sounds good.

Marg said...

I liked this when I read it, but not as much as you! I had issues with some of the events and the fact that they were pretty much unexplained!

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I'm adding a link to your review from mine. I was actually disappointed by this book (sorry!) ... I think I liked the IDEA of it more than the actual book. In college I studies lots of Russian/Soviet history so I loved that part, but I just felt that the book was rushed, and that the characters needed more development.

Amanda said...

I liked this book too! I wanted it to be longer though. But I am so jealous of the P.S. section so I am going to have to go out and find a copy with that to read it. I really enjoyed the part where she was giving tours in the empty museum. That is so cool that it is based off of a real person in history. Thanks for the review! I will be linking yours to my review as well. I also want to check out her short story book Confessions of a Falling Woman

Marg said...

I've linked to your review:

Ti said...

I loved this book too. I have a review up on my site right now and also participated in the radio show. Check it out if you have time.

Darlene said...

I loved this book too Julie. The chat last night was great.

Anonymous said...

I haven't written my review yet (I have so many stacked up, no discipline these days!), but I, too, thought this was a great book.

I'd like to read some of the supplementary material Dean mentions, the factual account of removing the art from the Hermitage.

Fascinating about the docent who continued to give tours!

Anna said...

Great review! I can't wait to read this one! It's been on my list for awhile, but I think I'm going to have to bump it up.

--Diary of an Eccentric

Sandra said...

We seem to love some of the same books. Good review, as always. My thoughts on the book are here:

With your permission I will add your links to my reviews of the same books. Thank you.