Saturday, May 16, 2009

Book 52: The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

Marina, the main character of The Madonnas of Leningrad, is a 82 year old woman suffering from Alzheimer's. The author attempts to get inside Marina's brains, and shows that while Marina often does not quite know or remember what is going on around her, she still vividly remembers her past, more specifically the winter of 1941 in Leningrad when she worked at the Hermitage Museum and lived in its basement.

While the novel does not exactly bring anything new to the table, I still enjoyed it. It is doubtful that this novel will teach anyone something about the siege that they didn't know or about the living conditions. Dean also uses some of the usual cliches that seem to abound in novels with mothers who have survived events in World War II: just like in A Thread of Grace, Those Who Save Us and various others, the children have very little idea of what their parents were once like since they do not discuss the war. A few scenes in the present are told from Marina's daughter Helen's perspective who has not seen her mother for a while, and is now seeing how much her mother has deteriorated.

Despite these cliches and possible weaknesses, the novel was still a good study of one particular person and what happened to her. Also, as the reader, it was interesting to see some references Marina would make to her past and see how in her state, she had slighlty confused and muddled them. Her family of course does not know what she is referring to and think it is simply the Alzheimer's while the reader knows exactly where her brain is getting some of these images that it then confuses. For example when she tells her daughter in law about a young woman that tried to save her father's life with her breast milk, she is actually confusing real life with one of the paintings that used to hang on the walls of the Hermitage.

The novel does not wrap everything up tightly: we find out from Dmitri how he and Mirina met again after the war in what sounds like something straight out of a movie, but we don't get too many details beyond a certain point in Marina's life. However, while there are loose holes and questions unanswered, it makes sense since all we know of the past is from inside Mirina's memories and she is focused on a very particular time. As a result, the book never dives into a point beyond that.

Basically, while the novel may not be the most in depth or illuminating about either the topic of Alzheimer's or the Siege of Leningrad, it was still a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. While I wouldn't tell anyone to run out and buy this book, I also wouldn't tell anyone not to read it.

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