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A wonderfully spare and elegant novel in which the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II is echoed by the destructive siege against the mind and memory of an elderly Russian woman suffering from Alzheimer's. The novel shifts between two settings: 1941 Leningrad, when the city was surrounded by German troops, and the present-day, as Marina, who had been a docent at Leningrad's Hermitage Museum during WWII, prepares for the wedding of her granddaughter off the coast of Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. The Madonnas of Leningrad is first and foremost an eloquent tribute to the beauty and resilience of memory, especially as contrasted to the incomparable devastation that comes with its loss to Alzheimer's.
The Hermitage houses many of Europe's greatest treasures, from Greek and Roman sculpture to masterpieces from the Renaissance and the Dutch Baroque period, to some of the greatest paintings of the impressionists. In the Fall of 1941, the collection's very existence was threatened by the looming German invasion. As German troops tightened their grip on the city, Marina and her colleagues scrambled to evacuate the hundreds of thousands of priceless pieces of art from the former Tsarist Palace. As they did so, they committed the masterpieces of art to memory, creating for themselves and for future generations what they called a "Memory Palace."
The novel shifts between the present and Marina's past almost seamlessly. In the present, Marina is slowly losing her grip on reality. She has trouble deciphering between what is happening at the wedding, and events that took place decades ago during the siege of Leningrad. Scenes of starvation during the war are juxtaposed with the marriage feast, and with Marina's memories of the empty Hermitage and its absent paintings. As Marina's thoughts focus on the Siege of Leningrad through the prism of the empty Hermitage and its absent art-works, it becomes clear that the skill that once sustained her - her ability to remember what she has lost - is slowing leaving her.