Your reviewer was in Washington, D.C. this week, but regrettably not long enough to go to the superb National Gallery of Art. The National Gallery, on the Mall between the Capitol and the White House, is special for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that the paintings there are the property of the country, of each individual American, for all of us to enjoy. But even so, there are times when you wander back through a hall where you've been already or observe paintings you've seen and enjoyed, and you feel they've lost something --- the image is more familiar than it was, and perhaps not as special. And as you leave, you might wonder about the people who work there, who see the art everyday, and what they feel about it.
Debra Dean's luminous debut novel is about a museum docent in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad on the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Her heroine, Marina, leads tours through a legendary collection of great art --- a collection she is thrilled to discover is her own as a Soviet citizen. (She later learns that the Hermitage collection is Stalin's personal slush fund, of course, but that does little to diminish the beauty.) Dean frequently interrupts her narrative to allow Marina to do some first-person storytelling about the art she sees, and it's some of the best writing in the novel.
When the war reaches Leningrad, Marina stays at the museum to help evacuate the paintings and other precious works of art, which are sent far beyond the lines for safekeeping. But Marina's own precious love, Dmitri, is sent in the other direction, to the front lines to halt the Nazi advance. Left behind in the city, Marina prowls the empty halls of the Hermitage, trying to reconstruct in her mind the past glories amidst the horrible privations of the besieged city.
This is the stuff of great stories, and Dean tells this part of the tale superbly well, reminding an inattentive public of the suffering endured by ordinary Russians in the Second World War. THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD, though, is very much a tale of our time as well, with past and present interchanging and intersecting with rapidity.
In our time, Marina is old and beginning to lose her faculties, and words like "Alzheimer's" and "assisted living" are being tossed about. When we see her as an elderly woman, she is leaving her comfortable Seattle home to go somewhere; she has to be reminded that it is to the wedding of her granddaughter, to a young man she does not recognize at all. The stories are interlayered so that the reader is led to recognize --- slowly, at first, and then unmistakably --- that the past devastation of the Hermitage is paralleled in the slow collapse of Marina's own "memory palace."
The evocation of Marina's suffering is best seen through her own eyes, through her own confused and conflicting recollections. It is all too often seen through the eyes of her daughter, a struggling middle-aged Phoenix artist whose mundane stresses contrast unfavorably with those of the mother whose history she barely knows.
The Madonna is a favorite subject of painters, again and again, because her presence in a painting says so much about so many things --- about joy, serenity, anguish, the power and majesty of divine revelation as expressed in the pride of a young mother. Even when we see the Madonna when her Child is still a baby, we know her destiny and the heartbreak that awaits her at the foot of the Cross, but we cannot be unmoved by her transcendental beauty and grace. We recognize the beauty and the suffering that accompanies it, and that cannot be separated. It is to the immense credit of Dean that she understands this essential truth and that the novel transmits it so eloquently.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on January 7, 2011
The Madonnas of Leningrad