Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad is the story of a woman named Marina, both early in her life and near the end. The narrative toggles back and forth between 1941, when Marina is a young woman working at The Hermitage in Leningrad, and the present, when she is an elderly American suffering from Alzheimer's.

The story set in 1941 covers the first months of the siege of Leningrad--at first, Marina is working to help pack the museum's art so it can be trucked to a safer location and seeing her friend--soon fiance--Dmitri, who is about to leave for the front. But the situation rapidly deteriorates, as the Germans cut off the city. As the bitterly cold winter progresses, the depravations are shocking. For protection from the bombs, Marina, her aunt, and uncle move into the basement of the Hermitage with hundreds of others. They survive on a few scraps of bread a day, also eating wood, glue, and whatever else they can find that might have some nutritive value. Her aunt and uncle succumb, but Marina survives. An elderly woman who works in the museum helps Marina retain her sanity by teaching her how to build a memory palace--a method for remembering the details of all the artworks now missing from the hermitage's walls.

Those memories are more real to the elderly Marina than her granddaughter's wedding, the setting for the contemporary sections of the book. Much of the time, she does not recognize her daughter and she cannot remember where she is. Faithful Dmitri is still with her, protecting her and hiding her condition from her son and daughter. When she goes missing in the middle of the night, however, the children understand the full extent of her illness.

Both pieces of the book are interesting/informative--shedding light on a historic event I knew little about, providing a glimpse into what it might be like to have Alzheimer's, and provoking reflection on art's power. But the two pieces really don't seem to fit together, there are a lot of loose ends that never get resolved, and the characters other than Marina are not well-realized. So I liked the book--but it could have been so much more.

And BTW, the mystery binge continues: I also read Silent Mercy by Linda Fairstein while reading Madonnas. However, I have nothing to say about it.

Favorite passages:
In the half-light, their eyes meet. What he finds there is her, but also not her. Her eyes are like the bright surface of shallow water, reflecting back his own gaze. Something flutters and darts under the surface, but it might be his own desire, his own memory. He is, he realizes, probably alone.

No one weeps anymore, or if they do, it is over small things, inconsequential moments that catch them unprepared. What is left that is heartbreaking? Not death: death is ordinary. What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp. Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers. What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world.

The slow erosion of self has its compensations. having forgotten whatever associations might dull her vision, she can look at a leaf and see it as if for the first time. Though reason suggests otherwise, she has never seen the green before. It is wondrous. Each day, the world is made fresh again, holy, and she takes it in, in all its raw intensity, like a young child. She feels something bloom in her chest--joy or grief, eventually they are inseparable. The world is so acutely beautiful, for all its horrors, that she will be sorry to leave it.

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