Dean, Debra. The Madonnas of Leningrad. New York: Harper, 2006.
This is a poignant story about a woman who suffers from Alzheimer's. She doesn't remember why she's at a wedding, but she remembers in great detail surviving the German occupation of her beloved hometown. Marina was a docent at the Hermitage Museum. Before the Germans moved into Russia, Marina and her co-workers carefully stored away priceless art for safe-keeping. The memories of the art is what helps Marina survive--not only through the war but also in the present day.
This was a great narrative and wonderful love story. I liked how Dean switched the time; it was not confusing to keep up with what was happening and it gave me a sense of what living with Alzheimer's must be like. The love is not only apparent between the characters, but it is apparent between Marina and the art.
Marina creates a "memory palace" of the art in the museum (Dean 68). Keeping the tour running in her head created a survival technique that allowed Marina to endure the many heartbreaking situations of the war. I liked hearing the concept of the memory palace. Sometimes I consciously take "pictures" with my mind to capture moments. Where are they stored in my brain? How do I recall these "pictures"?
Marina met Dmitri and promises herself to him. Later, by chance, they reunite and immigrate to America. When they start a family, they don't share their war experiences. Their children have no true idea of what their parents endured during the war.
Marina and Dmitri's daughter Helen doesn't realize that her love of art really comes from her mother. It made me think of how generations don't always share with the next their own "memory palaces." It made me want to hear stories from my grandparents. It made me want to listen better to the stories my parents are willing to share. It made me want to ask more questions. Would I get accurate answers or filtered responses? Will I share with my daughter the truth or a version of the truth?
I also enjoyed all of the art references in the book. I did take some time to look up the pieces of art to see if I recognized any of them. The way Dean describes them, though, creates a vivid picture in my head, especially at the end of the book when Marina is giving a private tour of the museum to a group of cadets. I felt like I was seeing the art with them.
I'm glad I read this book! One of my favorite lines from it is, "it is a terrible thing to have loved ones...make(s) their pain yours" (Dean 148). I felt pain reading this book, but it was not painful to read.