Throughout the war, visitors continue to explore the museum, and one curator, who lives and breathes the art, gives tours, describing the pictures with such detail and passion that the missing paintings come alive.
When author Debra Dean watched a PBS series on the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), she was so taken with the above true story that a seed was planted, which eventually grew into the novel The Madonnas of Leningrad.
Never having been to the Hermitage museum, or to Russia, Debra began intensive research over a period of several years. She studied the war and the siege of Leningrad, examined maps and photographs. She spent scores of hours on the museum website going over paintings and the layout of the various rooms. During this same time, her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That decline and degeneration was woven into the story.
The Madonnas of Leningrad follows the story of Marina, one of the staff at the Hermitage museum, through three different intertwined phases. The first phase shows her leading tours through the museum, her passion for art alive in her descriptions and understanding of the subjects that were portrayed. The second phase takes us through the siege of Leningrad, her budding romance, the heartbreak of the loss of the museum’s art, and the terror of the war. And the third phase depicts the strange merging of reality and fantasy as she ages.
What my summary doesn’t provide are the richness and beauty of Debra Dean’s characters, the exquisite detail she lends to her art descriptions, the passion for life that is inside all of us no matter our age or ability to remember. Her writing is beautiful and brilliant.
The other piece worth noting is that the author never made it to Russia to see the museum firsthand or to explore the streets of the city until after the book was sold to the publisher. I’m often attracted to subjects and places I know nothing about and many times have told myself I’m not qualified to write about them. Now I have new hope. If she can do it, others can.
The Madonnas of Leningrad is not a new book. It was published in 2006. But if you haven’t read it, you’re missing out. This book is joining my stack of all-time favorites.