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December 05, 2022

Review in Haiku: The Madonnas of Leningrad

By Katrina Stonoff

Brain fogs. When is now?
Saving art in Leningrad,
Or aging at home?

The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean, took my breath away. It's exquisite.

Marina is an old woman, struggling with reality as Alzheimer's nibbles at her brain. But memories remain clear in her foggy mind, so she moves into the past.

A past you and I can hardly imagine. A 20-something tour guide at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Marina helped crate up and evacuate the world class art as Germans advanced on the city in 1941.

The Germans laid siege, and 2000 workers moved their families into the cellars of the museum as bombs fell, surviving on jelly made from the joiner's glue used to build picture frames.

During the hard winter, Marina wandered the museum, re-creating the art in her mind and building a "memory palace," a place of safety and beauty to which she can always retreat.

Although the historical scenes are gut-punching, the most incredible aspect of the novel was how well Dean captured, in first person POV, how it feels to have Alzheimer's.

Of course, no one really knows, anymore than we know what it feels like to die. But I lived with my grandmother as she deteriorated, and I believe Dean has done a heroic job of imagining how it must be.

(To answer your question, my mother took care of her mother until she died. I helped, though not nearly enough. But my mother's example and the bittersweet experience of gathering as Mamaw died remain among my choicest memories.)

Some of the transitions in time are disconcerting, but there is never a moment the reader (with an unclouded mind) is confused. And indeed, the sense of being off-balance is exactly what Marina feels, so the ability to make the reader also feel it is evidence of Dean's skill.

Even more astonishing, Dean shows a balanced view of Alzheimer's. Much is taken from its victims, but something is given in return: a childlike wonder in the beauty of simple things.

And indeed, that is the theme. Madonnas is like one of those moments when the light hits a simple object (let's say a lime growing on a tree), and it's transformed: the perfect curve of the fruit, the shine of leaves, the waxy petals of one last blossom releasing a scent so sweet that your knees weaken.

Madonnas is a perfect book. There is nothing Dean could have done to improve it. The characters, the pacing, the details?everything about it displays the author's craft.

Just as people gather to the Hermitage to admire and learn from the masters, readers should flock to The Madonnas of Leningrad because it, also, is world class art.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-09-11
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