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





2013: August wrap-up

August did not have 31 days, this simply cannot be!  Once again running of time to write reviews, read more books, and post my wrap-up!!

My August reading month was average, with 7 books, a total of 1739 pages, that is,  56 pages/day.
I am almost done with 1 audiobook, but have not completely finished it yet, so cannot honestly count it for August – The World’s Strongest Librarian.

Only 2 on the 7 following books have their review. So plenty more to come!!

I read:

4 fiction:

  1. L’Amour Actually, by Melanie Jones
  2. Blindness, by José Saramago
  3. Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami
  4. Skylark, by Dezso Kosztolany

1 historical fiction:

The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean

2 non-fiction:

  1. The Consolations of The Forest, by Sylvain Tesson – upcoming review on September 10
    As a teaser, here is the blurb I wrote for Bloggers Recommend:
    This book is to be savored word by word. It is the diary of a man who spent six months by himself in a cabin on a Siberian lake. It contains beautiful and very evocative descriptions on the landscape, on solitude, on life, and on his numerous readings
  2. The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, by John Baxter

My favorites this month:

  Consolations of the Forest Madonnas of Leningrad


Reading Challenges recap

Around the World in 12 books:  5/12
Audiobook: 8/12
Books on France: 23/12 – COMPLETED
Cozy Mysteries: 4/10
Ebook challenge: 18/10 – COMPLETED
European reading challenge: 10/5 – COMPLETED
Historical fiction: 24/15 – COMPLETED
Japanese literature: 1/1
New authors challenge: 48/25 – COMPLETED
TBR challenge: 4/12
What’s in a Name: 5/6
Where Are You Reading?: 7/50
Australian Literature: 1/1 – COMPLETED

Total of books read so far in 2013 = 67

Number of books added to my TBR in July = 45!!!


Blog recap

  1. 2 of the 7 books mentioned here were received for reviews by author/publisher
  2. 32 readers signed up for my Books on France Challenge, and 90 reviews have already been posted. Don’t forget to post your reviews, and it is never too late to join!
  3. Every month, France Book Tours has a giveaway for the book(s) of the month. Have you checked yet the September giveaway? There are 2 books to win!
  4. France Book Tours already completed 11 book tours, there are 2 fantastic ones live this week, and there are 9 more already scheduled! If you are interested in reviewing books on your blog for France Book Tours, just fill in this short questionnaire. 53 book bloggers havealready done so! You can find all kinds of genre: historical fiction, romance, mystery, LGBT, nonfiction, etc.


Most popular recent book review

The Bones of Parisclick on the cover to access my review

Most popular recent post – non book review

Books on France Reading Challenge

Plans for September

Catching up with lots of book reviews to write, read several books for various book events:

Confessions of Marie-Antoinette / The Strangled Queen / Greenland BreachGrape Expectations / The Mona Lisa Speaks / Unravelled / Gracianna

– which may not leave much room to go on with my dear Proust and my lagging Reading Challenges!!

But THE big event is definitely my 3rd blogiversary! I have launched a mega giveaway to celebrate!

How was YOUR month of August?
And what are your reading plans for September?