Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Madonnas of Leningrad

by Debra Dean, narrated by Yelena Shmulenson, Harper Audio, September 2012, 7 hrs 7 mins

...highly recommend the audio for this one

I continue to punch my ticket with WWII novels.  This one is the story of a Russian woman Marina, who worked in the Hermitage in Leningrad during the terrible time when the city was besieged by the German army in 1941-43.  Marina has immigrated to Seattle and in old age is losing her hold on current events but can recall with total clarity the sufferings of her time in Russia during the war.  Marina struggles to identify lifelong friends at her granddaughters wedding.  Her son and daughter come to realize that their mother has Alzheimers and that their father can no longer care for her.  Her mind takes her back to her time as a young girl in Leningrad.  She describes the museum and the art treasures that were housed there.  We hear how the art was removed from the path of the Nazi advance and taken by train to more remote sections of Russia.  The deprivation that the Russian people endured during the siege of the city is told with staggering detail.  More than a quarter of the people of Leningrad succumbed to either bombing, disease, starvation or the cold during the 900 day siege.  Marina lives in the basement of the museum with her aunt and uncle and their children.  She survives this ordeal by concentrating of the beauty of the art that she has worked with at the museum.  The descriptions of the paintings, almost all Madonnas, are quite beautiful.
 I enjoyed the parts of this story that were set in Russia.  What happened to the Russian people in WWII was horrific and not a story that is often told.  The author does a good job with this.  The sections that deal with the Hermitage and the effort to save the art from the Nazi advance were something I did not know and found quite interesting.  Marina’s story told with this backdrop was quite compelling and at times heartbreaking.
Marina’s present day life with her encroaching Alzheimers is very sad, but sadder still is the fact that her children had no idea of the experiences their parents had during the war.  Is this really possible?  Could children be this incurious?  I had some trouble believing that her children could be so self centered, but I guess it is possible.
I liked this book even though I don’t think the two story lines came together well in the end.  There were for me a number of unanswered questions (what happened to her cousins?). I listened to the audio version of this story that was delightfully read by Yelena Shmulenson.  I’d highly recommend the audio for this one as the descriptions of the art when spoken came alive for me in ways that I don’t think would have happened had I read them.

I listened to a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

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