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Book Club Kits: The Madonnas of Leningrad

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Book Summary

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.

Read an excerpt from the novel.

Discussion Questions

  • Memory is a key theme of this novel. How does memory help Marina and others cope during the siege of Leningrad?  Is there survival value in art?

  • As Marina's memory deteriorates in old age, how does it shape her experience of the world and interactions with life?

  • 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." As difficult at the process of losing memory is, are there gifts to be found as well?

  • 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?

  • Are there any paintings you could describe in the same loving detail that Marina describes the paintings of the Hermitage?

  • 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?

  • Even though she says of herself that she is not a "believer," in what ways is Marina spiritual? How do religion and miracles figure in this novel? What are the miracles that occur in The Madonnas of Leningrad?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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 negative attitude or are such feelings an inevitable part of the human condition?

  • 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?

  • 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?