Reflections: The Madonnas of Leningrad

It's rare I take the time to savor  a stumbled upon book. With a list of To Be Read that rivals the Eiffel tower in height, I have to be choosy. I was seduced by the vivid cover and compactness of Debra Dean's The Madonnas of Leningrad, and I'm glad for it.

It is not, it must be pointed out, an amazing piece of literature by any common standard. It does, however, offer the quiet pleasure of the picturesque. The story tacks back and forth between the siege of Leningrad and a wedding in Washington state. The reader follows the thoughts and memories of Marina who in her past was a tour guide and art protector at what we now call the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and who in her present is experiencing the steep downhill of Alzheimer's affliction at her granddaughter's nuptials. What connects the two parts of this woman's life is her relationship to memory.

While suffering from a famine that is killing off the citizens of Leningrad after German bombs wipe out the city's food supply, Marina satisfies her need for pleasure by memorizing what used to be displayed in each room of her  museum before the art was shipped off for safe keeping. She remembers the lush still lifes and the pious Madonnas, the stiff portraits and the international curios. Dean's writing, at its best, conveys the semi-hysterical ecstasy that the starving girl feels in the presence of the imagined art works. Each reconstructed brush stroke really does help Marina dull the pain of frozen digits, dying relatives, and a fiance missing on the front.

In her present-day life, Marina is warm and loved by the long-found fiance (now husband) and their two children. She doesn't ache for memories of artistic beauty to fill other needs. This stage of her life is about the (painful, real, harsh, yet ineffably exhilarating, too) truth that forgetting allows one to see beauty too. Marina can no longer identify with accuracy herself in a mirror or her family members around her. This forgetting enables her to disencumber herself of all associations and to just be in the world, to experience the green of a dappled light as though she never has before.

Madonnas is a book to give yourself over to for an afternoon (and that's all it will take). It will bring you on a sweet and short journey into a different life than the one you lead.