By Dean, Debra
New York: Harper Perennial, 1997
ISBN # 978-0-06-082531-7
228 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2011

The Madonnas of Leningrad is a beautifully written and gripping novel, one that often had me in or near tears, and one which I read very quickly because I didn’t want to stop. Yet in the end, despite the emotional power of the story, I came away with many doubts and puzzles. On the other hand, the creativity of the Leningrad portion of the story was marvelously creative and fascinating. Obviously I come away a bit conflicted.

Marina is a woman just near 80 years old. She lives with her husband in Seattle. Both are Russian and came to the U.S. after WWII. He had been a soldier in the Russian army fighting the Germans, and she lived the war in the siege of Leningrad, living in the deep basements of Leningrad’s famous art museum.

As the novel opens in the U.S. close to the year 2000, there are signs that Marina is suffering Alzheimers, but seems unaware of that. Her husband knows that she is in some stage of dementia, but doesn’t want to talk about it. There oldest child is a physican in the Seattle area and his daughter is about to be married. Helen, the old couple’s other child, come to Seattle for the wedding, and the two adult children plan to talk with their parents about moving into some sort of care facility. Marina is just unaware of it all and her husband, Dmitri, doesn’t want to deal with it at all.

What the three family members do not know is that Marina may be losing her memory of TODAY in everyday life, but she is increasingly retreating into memories of those war years, especially 1941, in Leningrad which was under siege and constant bombings.

In that world she met an old and uneducated babushka, a cleaning lady at the museum for many many years. She knows virtually nothing ABOUT the paintings that were there, all of which have been taken down and packaged away, many even sent away for the duration of the war. However, she KNOWS the paintings by appearance and where each and every painting was. She and Marina become fast friends and Marina learns from her.

The novel is basically played out in two time periods, the weekend of the wedding of their granddaughter, and Marina’s retreat into her memories of 1941. I would roughly guess that about 2/3 of the novel is set in Leningrad and the other 1/3 set in contemporary Seattle.

The device which Debra Dean uses is extremely creative and her research is simply astonishing. However, I just don’t know enough about Alzheimers to know if such vivid memories of the past were likely or possible. The degree of it did challenge my ability to believe the story to the degree that I would have needed to.

My own mother died at a time when she was in serious stages of dementia, never fully diagnosed at Alzheimers, but seeming to fit the pattern. I saw all that author Dean described about the time in Seattle, and there were definite signs of some conscious and aware retreat into the past – conversations she would have with a dead brother, a small child she would report seeing and talking with at times and other such events. But, of course, we had no serious awareness of what that inner world was like.

Dean talks about this in a passage about her current relationship with Dmitri:

“She is leaving him, not all at once, which would be painful enough, but in a wrenching succession of separations. One moment she is here, and then she is gone again, and each journey takes her a little farther from his reach. He cannot follow her, and he wonders where she goes when she leaves.”

Note that only we, the readers, know where she goes.

Despite my puzzlements and doubts, the novel is just a fantastic read and I would enthusiastically recommend it to all.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett