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The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel Hardcover – March 14, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Russian emigré Marina Buriakov, 82, is preparing for her granddaughter's wedding near Seattle while fighting a losing battle against Alzheimer's. Stuggling to remember whom Katie is marrying (and indeed that there is to be a marriage at all), Marina does remember her youth as a Hermitage Museum docent as the siege of Leningrad began; it is into these memories that she disappears. After frantic packing, the Hermitage's collection is transported to a safe hiding place until the end of the war. The museum staff and their families remain, wintering (all 2,000 of them) in the Hermitage basement to avoid bombs and marauding soldiers. Marina, using the technique of a fellow docent, memorizes favorite Hermitage works; these memories, beautifully interspersed, are especially vibrant. Dean, making her debut, weaves Marina's past and present together effortlessly. The dialogue around Marina's forgetfulness is extremely well done, and the Hermitage material has depth. Although none of the characters emerges particularly vividly (Marina included), memory, the hopes one pins on it and the letting go one must do around it all take on real poignancy, giving the story a satisfying fullness.
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Her granddaughter's wedding should be a time of happiness for Marina Buriakov. But the Russian emigre's descent into Alzheimer's has her and her family experiencing more anxiety than joy. As the details of her present-day life slip mysteriously away, Marina's recollections of her early years as a docent at the State Hermitage Museum become increasingly vivid. When Leningrad came under siege at the beginning of World War II, museum workers--whose families were provided shelter in the building's basement--stowed away countless treasures, leaving the painting's frames in place as a hopeful symbol of their ultimate return. Amid the chaos, Marina found solace in the creation of a "memory palace," in which she envisioned the brushstroke of every painting and each statue's line and curve. Gracefully shifting between the Soviet Union and the contemporary Pacific Northwest, first-time novelist Dean renders a poignant tale about the power of memory. Dean eloquently describes the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Raphael, but she is at her best illuminating aging Marina's precarious state of mind: "It is like disappearing for a few moments at a time, like a switch being turned off," she writes. "A short while later, the switch mysteriously flips again." Allison Block
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow (March 14, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060825308
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060825300
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (447 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #225,909 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Debra Dean's bestselling novel THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD was a New York Times Editors' Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. It has been published in twenty languages. Her collection of short stories, CONFESSIONS OF A FALLING WOMAN, won the Paterson Fiction Prize and a Florida Book Award.

Her new novel, THE MIRRORED WORLD, is a breathtaking tale of love, madness, and devotion set against the extravagance and artifice of the royal court in eighteenth-century St. Petersburg.

A native of Seattle, she lives in Miami and teaches at Florida International University. She loves to talk with book groups. You can find her at and on Facebook at

Customer Reviews

It is well written and tells a wonderful story of life.
I also felt that towards the end the book become very rushed and ended somewhat abruptly.
Based on what happened in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during WWII it's a great story!

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

246 of 251 people found the following review helpful By Eileen Rieback on March 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover
As a young woman, Marina worked as a museum guide at the Hermitage in Leningrad. When war broke out and the Germans invaded the city, Marina and her comrades were tasked with removing the museum's priceless treasures and storing them safely away. During the 900 days of siege, the city residents faced devastation, starvation, and cold. The Hermitage's basement became Marina's refuge. The empty picture frames gracing its exhibition halls contained echoes of its former art, providing a distraction that helped Marina survive the horrors of war. Now living in Seattle, Marina is an elderly woman who is sinking into dementia. About to attend her granddaughter's wedding, her past overtakes the present and she is living in a muddled world of war, beauty, and the struggle for survival.

"The Madonnas of Leningrad" is a beautifully written and richly layered debut novel. Author Debra Dean achieves the daunting task of juxtaposing the horrors of war with the timeless beauty of art. She seamlessly interweaves Marina's flashbacks with present-day family activities. The descriptions of the deteriorating living conditions and the slow erosion of hope turning to despair are so realistic that the reader is transported to the besieged city to suffer along with its residents. There are touching scenes of grown children struggling to cope with the infirmities of their aging parents. This is also a story of love between Marina and Dmitri; it's a love that spans the years, from their youthful separation during the war to their golden years, when Dmitri must cope with Marina's declining mental faculties. There is even a touch of humor here and there too, such as when Marina reflects on the official Communist Party verbiage used to describe the bourgeois society depicted in the art masterpieces. With such a wide variety of themes and imagery here, all expertly crafted into a modest-sized story, this book is a must-read.

Eileen Rieback
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76 of 78 people found the following review helpful By Evelyn C on February 22, 2006
Format: Hardcover
What a wonderful first effort by a new voice in fiction. The history and art descriptions are quite factual and I was reminded how much art history I had forgotten and want to now revisit. The illness of Marina reminded me of some issues my own mother had. For example she has stopped cooking because she leaves out ingredients and she tends to leave pots and pans unattended. The way Marina shifts from the present to the past also rang true. I found the descriptions to be vivid enough to picture in my mind the struggles of love and war; imagination and nature. The ending quite surprised me and was so elegantly written it brought me to tears. I would recommend this read to anyone interested in Leningrad during the winter of 1941 or who loves someone with Alzheimer's. I look forward to future reads by Ms Dean. The only thing stopping me from giving this book the five star rating is that it does jump back and forth in time and some readers may be confused by that or not particularly like to read books that do this. I'd like to add that this technique is needed to show how the main character lives and thinks. It is truly a wonderful story and I think if you can get past the tenses changing, you'll enjoy the read.
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73 of 75 people found the following review helpful By Maudeen Wachsmith VINE VOICE on May 6, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What a magnificent read this was! I am resisting the urge to start reading it again right away only because I have so many on my nightstand that I want to read. But this will be one to be read again sooner than later. I found myself spending so much time looking up the works of art mentioned in the book and the Hermitage Museum website that it took much longer than it should have to read this 228 page book. It is so beautifully written I found myself reading passages over and over again and marking pages with any scrap of paper I had handy. I see it was tied for #1 Booksense pick for April. A pretty good hallmark of an excellent read.

This is an amazing story of a woman with Alzheimer's disease, so many times described as "the long goodbye" and most notable in the following passage, "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."

The only thing a bit off-putting was the naming of an island in the San Juans "Drake" island when there is no such island (when the author uses so many other real places) but I believe it was actually San Juan Island where I have visited many times, most recently last August. That is such a small quibble.

This is such an outstanding book. I only regret I can't afford to buy one to give to everyone I know.
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124 of 137 people found the following review helpful By Lesley West on January 4, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is, as the other reviewers have so wel pointed out, a remarkable story of great love - of art, of family, and of survival at a time when it seemed nothing would survive - no decency, no beauty, and definitely not human beings besieged in the midst of a horrendous war.

Later we find our heroine equally besieged, by the unforgiving terrors of alzheimer's disease, as she struggles to remember family, friends, and at times who she is. All of this is premise for an unforgettable story.

However, I would have liked it to be longer. I would have liked to have known more of our heroes before the novel quickly descended into the horror of their situation. I would have liked there to have been more description of the physical nature of the Hermitage, and the many treasures that it holds. I guess I would have liked, well.... just more.

THis is indeed a lovely novel, and I imagine that there are many, many stories like this that are as unknown to us as they were to the families of the main characters. I guess my point is this novel is merely a taste of their story, and I wanted it to be so much more.
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