Friday, July 25, 2008

REVIEW: The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean. Published 2006 by HarperCollins. Literary Fiction.
The Madonnas of Leningrad is a brief, sweet treat of a novel. Being about Russia and being about women, it intrigued me right away. The subject of the novel is Marina, now an older woman, who survived the Siege of Leningrad and is now gradually fading to Alzheimer's disease. It's also about her daughter Helen and preparations for a family wedding in the present-day United States. The narrative goes back and forth between the past and present, between Marina as a vital young woman who must work tirelessly to save herself and her own family, as well as the vast treasures of the legendary Hermitage Museum, and her slow decline.

Unsurprisingly for a book about Alzheimer's, the overarching theme of the novel is memory. In the past, Marina constructs elaborate "memory rooms" in her mind, to save the layout and contents of the museum within herself. It becomes an almost sacred task as paintings and artifacts are boxed, stored and shipped, and it's unknown if they will return or if the museum, a treasure of Russian culture, will ever be restored. The Madonnas of the title are a reference to the many paintings and depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the beloved museum, and to Marina herself, alone and pregnant and her name a Russian variant of the Virgin's.

I liked this book very much. Dean does a nice job of pacing and unfolding the story, and I liked the alternating perspectives, Marina's and Helen's, on both the past and the present. The "memory room" passages were bittersweet with loss and nostalgia. Towards the end the family experiences a crisis, and while it is resolved in a way both satisfactory and poetic, I wish Helen's character had been a little more developed before the action started. I felt like Dean told only part of her story and dropped her too soon. Having captured so beautifully a past and a present tense, I would like to have had a sense of the future for this family, and Helen could have been its carrier. A minor quibble. The book would be a great choice for people who enjoy character-driven stories about women and families especially. I thought it was pretty terrific.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.