The Madonnas of Leningrad snuck up on me. The cover has a “here’s some fiction written by a girl” look, the book itself is short with larger print and more space between lines than most literary novels have (Have you noticed that about books? Do different genres seem to have different typesetting standards?), and the story read very quickly.
Part way through the book it hit me that this wasn’t just a compelling story with an interesting setting, it was really great writing too. The best kind of surprise.
Marina’s story is told in two points of time–in one she is a young docent at the Hermitage during the seige of Leningrad, and in the other she is an old woman in America, falling victim to encroaching dementia. As her present-day memory fades, Marina remembers more scenes from the seige, and her seeming confusion in modern day reflects where she is in her older memories. The device could have been cumbersome, but was exceptionally well implemented, such that the shifts from young Marina to old Marina appeared seamless and spoke volumes about the nature of memory and identity why culture and beauty are worth preserving. These themes are masterfully played out, but the pacing is so well done that you absorb the bigger issues of the book organically and only consider them in full later.
One thing that struck me in particular about this book was the idea that memory is valuable when what we preserve is passed on. An elderly lady at the museum has memorized every detail of the vast Hermitage collection, and helps Marina to create a memory palace (if you’ve read Moonwalking With Einstein you know about that!) so that the beauty of the art won’t be lost. Marina’s commitment to recreating the art for visitors to the museum is juxtaposed with later life Marina, who never shares her past with her children. The reader sees how often Marina’s experience could have helped her children navigate difficulties or know better who they are, but she missed that opportunity, until Alzheimer’s renders it completely lost.
My grandfather died last week, and my brother and I talked about how many things are lost when you lose a relative. So many stories just die with people–and the majority of people don’t write things down so you just never know the details of their upbringing or how it was to be in a different era or how they felt about the milestones of life. Even the most pedestrian lives are full of interest for your family–especially as history wears on. I think I was so sad about Marina’s failure to connect with her children because of my own sense of loss not knowing all of the stories my grandparents had to tell.
I really enjoyed The Madonnas of Leningrad and would highly recommend it–as a book about the seige of Leningrad, a book about the unraveling of memory Alzheimer’s brings, and as a book about the things worth preserving and passing on.
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