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The Madonnas of Leningrad    by Debra Dean order for
Madonnas of Leningrad
by Debra Dean
Order:  USA  Can
William Morrow, 2006 (2006)
* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

The hauntingly beautiful but tragic tale of The Madonnas of Leningrad deserves to be read twice. Once for the story line, then again for its beautiful use of words. Marina is a docent in the Hermitage just at the beginning of the siege of Leningrad during World War II. The vast museum has begun packing and storing the great works of art in its four hundred rooms, to protect the irreplaceable items - items that Stalin has said belong to the Russian people.

Skipping forward many years, the reader finds Marina and her husband Dmitri living in Seattle where Marina is succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimer's. Marina keeps slipping back in time to the unimaginable conditions in which the Hermitage's staff lived in the basement of the museum during the siege. Unbelievable numbers died of starvation. Marina's fight to survive concentrates on her self-imposed task of memorizing the paintings that hung on the walls of the rooms through which she guided tours. At times she feels she enters the masterpieces, and walks among the figures caught on the canvasses.

Her loss of the immediate past is tenderly handled, and one feels sorry for someone who must relive such brutal memories. The descriptions of the paintings are beautifully rendered. If one closes one's eyes after reading of a particular painting, it's possible to bring the canvas alive against one's eyelids. I found it hard to believe that The Madonnas of Leningrad is Debra Dean's first novel. She segues from one time period to the other masterfully - as you can tell, I enjoyed this book very much, and look forward to more from its author.

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