The Madonnas of Leningrad is several stories rolled into one incredible novel. On the surface, it is the story of an old Russian woman now living in the United States. As a young woman, she worked as a docent in The Hermitage, just prior to WWII. She and her co workers were charged with the formidable task of packing the treasured art pieces for safe storage during the German invasion. The book shifts the reader back and forth between that period in Marina Burakov's life, and the present, when she is traveling with her husband to her granddaughter's wedding.
The book is unofficially divided into sections by Marina's brief flashbacks to parts of the tour she gave of The Hermitage collection. While readers gets a mini tour of some of the most famous sections of the museum, they are also given the “theme” of the next section of the story. For instance, in the opening pages of the book, Marina describes the Spanish Skylight Hall. She details for readers what the hall looked like and the various works on display. She focuses on a painting by Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez of peasants eating lunch. While describing this painting, she starts to remember the food blockade during the war and how the staff made do with what was available. When the readers officially “meet” Marina for the first time, she standing in her kitchen trying to decide what to eat for breakfast. However, the reader soon realizes that not only do the tour passages set up the theme for the next part of the story, they are also Marina's life line to her mind. Because you see, Marina is suffering from the onset of Alzheimer's. Not only is Marina trying to decide what to eat for breakfast, she's also struggling with the thought that perhaps she has already eaten.
While The Madonnas of Leningrad is primarily the story of a woman's descent into Alzheimer's disease, it has several sub plots. It's a historical novel of Russia during WWII. But it's also the love story of Marina and Dmitri and their sixty plus year marriage. And it's the story of their daughter Helen coming to grips with middle age and realizing her life's dreams slipping away. One of the most interesting things is the exploration of the inner working of the human mind. Marina's use of her “memory Castle” is a lesson for all of us. And lastly, it's nearly a travelogue for The Hermitage.
Because some things are left open to readers interpretation, like the circumstances of Andre's conception and Marina's spiritual beliefs, this book would be an excellent choice for book groups to discuss.
The telling of Marina's life story would by itself be a fine book. However, there are many more layers of The Madonnas of Leningrad for readers to enjoy even through multiple readings.
REVIEWED BY CARYN ST. CLAIR
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