Debra Dean, The Madonnas of Leningrad (New York: Harpers Perennial, 2011), 231 pages plus 16 pages of interviews and notes
Last fall, I heard an interview with Debra Dean on National Public Radio. Her book about a woman who had worked at the Hermitage during the siege of Leningrad during World War II and was in the present suffering from Alzheimer’s sounded intriguing. When I heard the interview, I had just returned back to the United States after an incredible round-the-world trip which included a day (not nearly long enough) of admiring the vast art collection at the Hermitage. There were several other reasons I was drawn to the book. As a teenager, I had read The 900 Days, a book about the siege of Leningrad, and some of the suffering they endured has always haunted me. Furthermore, I now have a mother with Alzheimer’s, which gave Dean’s story a personal interest. I put her book on my to-be-read list. Finally, at a conference two weeks ago at Calvin College, I met Debra Dean, had her sign the book and immediately begin to read it. It was a quick and enjoyable read.
|Hallway inside the Hermitage|
Dean alternates between Marina’s life in the past and what’s happening in the present in which the story is told through her daughter, Helen. Helen comes to visit the family in the Seattle area in order to attend a wedding. From the very beginning of her visit, she realizes there is something wrong with her mother by the questions she asks (this was déjà vu for me, for my mother went through a period of questioning). While there, she learns the awful truth of her mother’s illness, which had been hidden from her. Then her mother disappears, which results in a crisis a after the wedding which adds tension to the story. Although her mother’s illness is difficult for Helen to accept, she does begin to learn a little about her parent’s life before they came to the United States. However, there are still questions as somehow her parents had been reunited in Germany and were able to resettle in the United States.
I enjoyed this book. At the end of the book, there is an interview with Dean and the story of her traveling to St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) to see the museum. This visit occurred after she had completed the book, for Dean wrote the book without having seen the Hermitage. In the book, Marina, with the help of another older Russian woman, had memorized many of the paintings as a way to keep the museum alive during the war. This technique allows Dean to work in the details of many of the paintings, a detail that makes the book more interesting. I recommend this book.
|Outside the Hermitage|