So Many Books, So Little Time: ‘The Madonnas of Leningrad,’ by Debra Dean

Violetta Armour

The setting is St. Petersburg, Russia. The main character, Marina, is a guide at the Heritage Museum when war breaks out with Nazi Germany. She helps to pack and evacuate the million-plus paintings and art objects in the collection, and during the first winter of the siege, she lives in the cellars beneath the emptied museum.

Flash forward to present day and Marina’s life where she is suffering from Alzheimer’s. As she attends her granddaughter’s wedding, she often slips into the past, recalling in vivid detail her life as the young lady in Russia.

So, you have the Siege of Leningrad, Nazi terrorism, people dying of starvation in Russia, and then throw in Alzheimer’s! Whoa … way too much, you might say. But in spite of all of the above, the novel is a very inspiring read, not only for the message, but the beauty of the language.

Author Debra Dean was inspired to write this story after watching the 1995 PBS series on the Hermitage Museum, which tells of the one million objects evacuated. They left the empty frames on the walls as a token of their pledge that the art would return.

What is also amazing is that Dean wrote her debut novel with detailed accuracy without ever having been in Russia. She spent years reading histories of the war and hours on the Hermitage website.

In addition to the historical drama, this is a good story of love, family, and the endurance of the human spirit.

When Dean finally visited the museum in person after her book publication, she learned two Russian words, which I now repeat to the author for giving us such a great read: Spasiba pri krasna. Thank you, it’s beautiful.

Reviewer Violetta Armour is a Sun Lakes resident who owned Pages Bookstore in Ahwatukee in the 90s. She is the author of five novels, including the award-winning I’ll Always Be With You, Available on