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The Madonnas of Leningrad [Kindle Edition]

Debra Dean
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (465 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina's grip on the everyday. An elderly Russian woman now living in America, she cannot hold on to fresh memories—the details of her grown children's lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild—yet her distant past is miraculously preserved in her mind's eye.

Vivid images of her youth in war-torn Leningrad arise unbidden, carrying her back to the terrible fall of 1941, when she was a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum and the German army's approach signaled the beginning of what would be a long, torturous siege on the city. As the people braved starvation, bitter cold, and a relentless German onslaught, Marina joined other staff members in removing the museum's priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, leaving the frames hanging empty on the walls to symbolize the artworks' eventual return. As the Luftwaffe's bombs pounded the proud, stricken city, Marina built a personal Hermitage in her mind—a refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . . .

Includes an excerpt from Debra Deans The Mirrored World.

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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

Product Details

  • File Size: 378 KB
  • Print Length: 256 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins e-books (October 13, 2009)
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #33,729 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
247 of 252 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Art transcends war March 14, 2006
By Eileen
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
4.0 out of 5 stars An unforgetable story of love, imagination, and survival February 22, 2006
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Why isn't this book a Number One Bestseller???? 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
3.0 out of 5 stars Poignant, but lacks depth.... January 4, 2007
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
The two parts of the story never messed together..
Published 4 days ago by louanne carnwath
4.0 out of 5 stars Clever Hermitage by memory
Room by room the once Hermitage employee memorized the placement of art masterpieces. Her story of the siege of Leningrad is interspersed with her modern story with her children,... Read more
Published 13 days ago by Robert McConnell
3.0 out of 5 stars I did enjoy it however
After reading "All the Light We Cannot See" and "The Nightingale" this novel was not quite up to their standard. I did enjoy it however.
Published 14 days ago by Cheryl L. Brown
4.0 out of 5 stars An elegant portrait of Alzheimer's disease
Marina is fading as is her grip on the present. But the past is vividly alive and she takes us there with her to a beautiful place in a terrible time. Can you see?
Published 16 days ago by Lynn F Rochester
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Enjoyed this book. Plan to suggest it to my book club.
Published 21 days ago by Gclau
1.0 out of 5 stars One Star
Hated ending
Published 24 days ago by Ann Marie Barclay
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
I really enjoyed the story but it ended too abruptly.
Published 25 days ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars I liked the book
I liked the book. It had a great deal of history as well as a fine told story. Having been to St. Petersburg it was easy to see many of the details in my mind's eye. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Osageash
5.0 out of 5 stars WWII as background on a beautiful story
Beautiful story with historical information not very well known during WWII. Seen through the eyes of a survivor
Published 1 month ago by laura
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Excellent novel written on true facts.
Published 1 month ago by DOLORES HARVELL
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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

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I swear this was available for loan the other day!
I, too , want to loan this book, which I purchased for my Kindle. I did not realize that there are books which one cannot loan? This seems very odd, since loaning a book once is supposed to be an advantage of buying kindle books.
Feb 27, 2014 by J. Schaper |  See all 3 posts
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