Memory is fragile and flexible. Even its failures serve us at times. The Madonnas of Leningrad, the first novel by Seattle professor Debra Dean, is the story of Marina, a young museum docent who takes refuge in the Hermitage during the 1941 siege of Leningrad. The paintings and artifacts are gone, carefully packed and shipped out of reach of German bombs. On the advice of a babushka, an older woman on the museum staff, Marina builds a memory palace: a museum in her mind where each painting still hangs on the wall. The memory palace serves as Marina's anchor and salvation, an exercise of imagination where she pictures a future for herself and the baby she is carrying. Of all the works in the famed collection, the paintings of Madonnas most inspire her. After the siege, Marina finds her beloved Dmitri in a German POW camp. They make their way to Seattle, where they raise two children who know little about their mother's wartime experience.
Dean merges past and present in prose that shines like the gilt frames in the Hermitage. The story shifts seamlessly from 1941 to the present, just as Alzheimer's shifts time within Marina's mind. The heart of the story is its flashbacks, when we walk the Spanish Hall with Marina, aching with loss and hunger. As she commits scenes, colors, even brushstrokes to memory, the paintings come alive. Chapters narrated by her daughter Helen show us the present, when Marina slips away at a family gathering. During the search, Helen, herself a mother and an artist, wonders about the memories parents choose to tell their children and the memories they keep secret.
Drawn in part from Dean's observations of her grandmother's life with Alzheimer's, The Madonnas of Leningrad is an artful story, lovingly told, that illustrates how humans deal with trauma the physical privations and fears of war, and the slow deterioration of the mind itself. Like the empty frames on the museum walls, this novel of memory and forgetting glows with love and hope.
Leslie Budewitz writes, reads and paints in northwest Montana.