The Madonnas of Leningrad: Book review

The Madonnas of Leningrad


Debra DEAN

228 pages

Published in 2007 by Harper Perennial

Madonnas of Leningrad

This book counts for the following Reading Challenges

   hf-reading-challenge-2013 2013 TBR Pile


Rating system

Last year, I had the great opportunity to meet Debra Dean, as she was presenting her most recent book, The Mirrored World. As I had not yet read her first novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, I bought it. I’m finally going through some long overdue titles in my TBR.

Let me tell you first that the only bad thing about this book is its book cover! Usually, authors don’t have much of a say for this part of their book, which would explain; really the pose and picture of this young lady do not convey anything to me about this amazing book.

Marina is a young tour guide at the fabulous Hermitage Museum when the Siege of Leningrad takes place. The description of the horrors of that time, side by side with the love of art was amazing. The museum workers had to move all the works of art for safe refuge. It was really moving to see the guides still going through the rooms and give tours in front of empty frames, evoking the works that used to hang there, with many details and a lot of passion.

The novel goes back and forth between that time and Marina as an elderly woman, fighting against Alzheimer’s disease. The museum tragedy imprinted its experience on her brain and in her heart. So you see at the same time memory at its best, in touch with beauty in art, and at its worst, when it no longer works, because of age, illness, and trauma.

I don’t want to say more, this is a book to really experience.

What struck me is that it sounds to me as if Debra Dean is trying to depict how memory and the past can affect us in extreme and tragic ways. Both her female heroines, Marina in The Madonnas of Leningrad and Xenia in The Mirrored World, are both challenged in their mind, because of a major grief, something extremely tragic that will touch them for ever. Xenia ends up on the side of what some may consider as pure insanity; and Marina goes through the much too common disease touching our memory.
It is fascinating to see how the author thus approaches the same theme showing two different facets of it.
Besides, one novel is strongly connected with religion, the other with art, two worlds not that foreign to each other, as this novel here shows.
One novel also considers the phenomena more at the level of the individual maybe, the other at the society level.

If you are fascinated by the theme of memory, or want to read a historical novel on the Siege of Leningrad, you absolutely need to read this one!


Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina’s grip on the everyday. And while the elderly Russian woman cannot hold on to fresh memories—the details of her grown children’s lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild—her distant past is preserved: vivid images that rise unbidden of her youth in war-torn Leningrad.

In the fall of 1941, the German army approached the outskirts of Leningrad, signaling the beginning of what would become a long and torturous siege. During the ensuing months, the city’s inhabitants would brave starvation and the bitter cold, all while fending off the constant German onslaught. Marina, then a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum, along with other staff members, was instructed to take down the museum’s priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, yet leave the frames hanging empty on the walls—a symbol of the artworks’ eventual return. To hold on to sanity when the Luftwaffe’s bombs began to fall, she burned to memory, brushstroke by brushstroke, these exquisite artworks: the nude figures of women, the angels, the serene Madonnas that had so shortly before gazed down upon her. She used them to furnish a “memory palace,” a personal Hermitage in her mind to which she retreated to escape terror, hunger, and encroaching death. A refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . . [Goodreads]


Debra Dean

Debra Dean’s bestselling novel THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. It has been published in twenty languages. Her collection of short stories, CONFESSIONS OF A FALLING WOMAN, won the Paterson Fiction Prize and a Florida Book Award.

Her new novel, THE MIRRORED WORLD, is a breathtaking tale of love, madness, and devotion set against the extravagance and artifice of the royal court in eighteenth-century St. Petersburg.

A native of Seattle, she lives in Miami and teaches at Florida International University. She loves to talk with book groups. You can find her at and on Facebook at






9 thoughts on “The Madonnas of Leningrad: Book review

  1. Pingback: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2013 | Words And Peace

  2. Pingback: 2013 TBR Pile Reading Challenge | Words And Peace

  3. I loved this book, too, and I agree with you about the connections between Marina and Xenia, though I hadn’t thought about that before. This was the first book I read about Leningrad, and it’s stayed with me though it’s been a few years since I first read it. Great review!


  4. I totally agree with what you said about the cover. But i did really like the book. I read it right before I went to St. Petersburg, so it was extra special! What did you think of her latest?


    • oh wow, that must have been so cool. I would really love to go to the Hermitage.
      her latest? you mean The Mirrored World? the link to my review is on the 2nd line of the review of the Madonnas. I talk a lot there about it, plus I posted an interview with Debra. I even met her in person. I loved loved The Mirrored World, also for some personal reasons, you will see why there


  5. Pingback: (2012) #46 review: The Mirrored World | Words And Peace

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