Publisher Wm. Morrow, March 2006
A wonderfully spare and elegant novel in which the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II is echoed by the destructive siege against the mind and memory of an elderly Russian woman suffering from Alzheimer’s. The novel shifts between two settings: 1941 Leningrad, when the city was surrounded by German troops, and the present-day, as Marina, who had been a docent at Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum during WWII, prepares for the wedding of her granddaughter off the coast of Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD is first and foremost an eloquent tribute to the beauty and resilience of memory, especially as contrasted to the incomparable devastation that comes with its loss to Alzheimer’s.
The Hermitage houses many of Europe’s greatest treasures, from Greek and Roman sculpture to masterpieces from the Renaissance and the Dutch Baroque period, to some of the greatest paintings of the impressionists. In the Fall of 1941, the collection’s very existence was threatened by the looming German invasion. As German troops tightened their grip on the city, Marina and her colleagues scrambled to evacuate the hundreds of thousands of priceless pieces of art from the former Tsarist Palace. As they did so, they committed the masterpieces of art to memory, creating for themselves and for future generations what they called a “Memory Palace.”
The novel shifts between the present and Marina’s past almost seamlessly. In the present, Marina is slowly losing her grip on reality. She has trouble deciphering between what is happening at the wedding, and events that took place decades ago during the siege of Leningrad. Scenes of starvation during the war are juxtaposed with the marriage feast, and with Marina’s memories of the empty Hermitage and its absent paintings. As Marina’s thoughts focus on the Siege of Leningrad through the prism of the empty Hermitage and its absent art-works, it becomes clear that the skill that once sustained her – her ability to remember what she has lost – is slowing leaving her.
THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD is a moving novel of tremendous impact, beautifully told. The concluding scene is both heartbreaking and joyful, and one you will not forget soon.
“An unforgettable story of love, survival and the power of imagination in the most tragic circumstances. Elegant and poetic, the rare kind of book that you want to keep but you have to share.”
— Isabel Allende, author of The House of the Spirits, Daughter of Fortune and My Invented Country
The Madonnas of Leningrad is an extraordinary debut, a deeply lovely novel that evokes with uncommon deftness the terrible, heartbreaking beauty that is life in wartime. Like the glorious ghosts of the paintings in the Hermitage that lie at the heart of the story, Dean’s exquisite prose shimmers with a haunting glow, illuminating us to the notion that art itself is perhaps our most necessary nourishment. A superbly graceful novel.
— Chang-rae Lee, author of A Gesture Life and Native Speaker
See Debra Dean video speaking on her novel…
Listen to Debra’s interview on National Public Radio on her novel… (click on Listen button on NPR page)