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The Madonnas of Leningrad (P.S.)


The Madonnas of Leningrad (P.S.) Cover

ISBN13: 9780060825317
ISBN10: 0060825316
Condition: Standard
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Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion

1. The working of memory is a key theme of this novel. As a young woman, remembering the missing paintings is a deliberate act of survival and homage for Marina. In old age, however, she can no longer control what she remembers or forgets. "More distressing than the loss of words is the way that time contracts and fractures and drops her in unexpected places." How has Dean used the vagaries of Marina's memory to structure the novel? How does the narrative itself mimic the ways in which memory functions?

2. Sometimes, Marina finds consolations within the loss of her short-term memory. "One of the effects of this deterioration seems to be that as the scope of her attention narrows, it also focuses like a magnifying glass on smaller pleasures that have escaped her notice for years." Is aging merely an accumulation of deficits or are there gifts as well?

3. The narrative is interspersed with single-page chapters describing a room or a painting in the Hermitage Museum. Who is describing these paintings and what is the significance of the paintings chosen? How is each interlude connected to the chapter that follows?

4. The historical period of The Madonnas of Leningrad begins with the outbreak of war. How is war portrayed in this novel? How is this view of World War II different from or similar to other accounts you have come across?

5. Even though she says of herself that she is not a "believer," in what ways is Marina spiritual? Discuss Marina's faith: how does her spirituality compare with conventional religious belief? How do religion and miracles figure in this novel? What are the miracles that occur in The Madonnas of Leningrad?

6. A central mystery revolves around Andre's conception. Marina describes a remarkable incident on the roof of the Hermitage when one of the statues from the roof of the Winter Palace, "a naked god," came to life, though she later discounts this as a hallucination. In her dotage, she tells her daughter-in-law that Andre's father is Zeus. Dmitri offers other explanations: she may have been raped by a soldier or it's possible that their only coupling before he went off to the front resulted in a son. What do you think actually happened? Is it a flaw or a strength of the novel that the author doesn't resolve this question?

7. At the end of Marina's life, Helen admits that "once she had thought that she might discover some key to her mother if only she could get her likeness right, but she has since learned that the mysteries of another person only deepen, the longer one looks." How well do we ever know our parents? Are there things you've learned about your parents' past that helped you feel you knew them better?

8. In much the same way that Marina is struggling with getting old, her daughter, Helen, is struggling with disappointments and regrets often associated with middle-age: her marriage has failed, her son is moving away, she may never get any recognition as an artist, and last but not least, she is losing a life-long battle with her weight. Are her feelings of failure the result of poor choices and a bad attitude or are such feelings an inevitable part of the human condition?

9. In a sense, the novel has two separate but parallel endings: the young Marina giving the cadets a tour of the museum, and the elderly Marina giving the carpenter a tour of an unfinished house. What is the function of this coda? How would the novel be different if it ended with the cadets' tour?

10. What adjectives would you use to describe The Madonnas of Leningrad? Given the often bleak subject matter - war, starvation, dementia — is the novel's view of the world depressing?

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 7 comments:

Eugene reader, August 20, 2012 (view all comments by Eugene reader)
Marina is a young woman in Leningrad, Russia during the war in 1941. She works as a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum. But as the German army's seige begins museum staff members move the art pieces to the basement and other safe places, while many of them live (or barely live) in this hidden lower level of the Hermitage. Marina is devoted to the artworks and sharing her knowledge with others. Now, however, Marina is an elderly woman living in America and the illness of Alzheimer's has a grip on her. I felt as if I were a part of her life and family as the reader travels with her between her past and her muddled interpretation of the present. Her years in the museum remain a strong part of her memory as we experience her latter years. Debra Dean has a true gift.
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SMR, January 19, 2012 (view all comments by SMR)
Marina has Alzheimer's and is becoming more and more distant from her family as she remembers her life in Leningrad during World War II. Part historical novel, part love story, part memoir, part Alzheimer's story. The horrors of war and the discovery of the importance of details and little joys. Beautifully and hopefully written.
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(1 of 1 readers found this comment helpful)
Virtually snowbound, January 18, 2012 (view all comments by Virtually snowbound)
I can scarcely believe this is the author's first novel. It's beautifully written and totally engrossing. I am looking forward to other work by Debra Dean.
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Product Details

Dean, Debra
Harper Perennial
by Debra Dean
General Fiction
Historical fiction
Psychological fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade PB
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
7.88x5.36x.67 in. .44 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
History and Social Science » Pacific Northwest » Literature Folklore and Memoirs

The Madonnas of Leningrad (P.S.) Used Trade Paper
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Product details 256 pages Harper Perennial - English 9780060825317 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina's grip on the everyday. An elderly Russian woman now living in America, she cannot hold on to fresh memories— the details of her grown children's lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild— yet her distant past is miraculously preserved in her mind's eye.

Vivid images of her youth in war-torn Leningrad arise unbidden, carrying her back to the terrible fall of 1941, when she was a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum and the German army's approach signaled the beginning of what would be a long, torturous siege on the city. As the people braved starvation, bitter cold, and a relentless German onslaught, Marina joined other staff members in removing the museum's priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, leaving the frames hanging empty on the walls to symbolize the artworks' eventual return. As the Luftwaffe's bombs pounded the proud, stricken city, Marina built a personal Hermitage in her mind— a refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . . .

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