Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel (P.S.) The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel by Debra Dean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The first time that I saw the Mona Lisa, I almost cried. It is not even a beautiful painting, but in that moment I sensed its significance – I felt in an instant how many people had stood in front of this mysterious woman and wanted to know her secret or maybe I felt like she somehow understood my secrets. I saw in the subtle strokes of green and brown, the touch of a master’s loving hand and saw perhaps a glimpse of his vision. Reading “The Madonnas of Leningrad” is to experience someone else’s glimpse of grandeur over and over again. The main character, Marina, of Debra Dean’s story is a tour guide in the Hermitage Museum in Stalin’s Russia in 1941. She is also lost in her own mind in present day Seattle. With her, we ponder the use of a pale blue for Mary’s dress while the Christ child looks up as if knowing what fate awaits him. We wait in terror as Germany’s bombs destroy hope and what little hope is left. We also get lost in Marina’s confusion as mental illness claims her peace of mind and her familiarity with the people she has cared for all her life. Throughout the book, Marina slips back into memories of the paintings she loved and the war torn country that shaped the strokes of her life as her ability to stay in the here and now deteriorates.

Though there are no paintings in the pages of this story, it too is a work of art. Dean’s words lyrically take you from the eastern front of World War II to drizzly days in the Evergreen state. My only complaint about this book is the random confusion the reader experiences throughout. While, the lack of detail may have intentional on Dean’s part in order to mirror Marina’s altered mental state, it is frustrating. I finished the story slightly unfulfilled because I did not understand all the intricacies of the plot. That said, it is worth reading and worth appreciating no matter what our individual experiences with war, mental illness, love, and/or art are, afterwards, we are never the same.

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