The author’s in-depth research of the Siege of Leningrad in 1941 during World War II allows the reader to be a part of this war through the eyes of Marina Beriakov, a former docent at the Hermitage Museum. Her present dementia allows her memory to return to 1941 with remarkable clarity. The flashbacks in the novel take the reader back time and again to 1941 Stalingrad and the plight of the staff and volunteers at the Hermitage Museum. We visit the galleries room-by-room with Marina and imagine the paintings are still in the empty frames on the wall from her view. The works of artists like Gainsborough, Rubens, Rembrandt, and others come alive in the mind-s eye. We help pack the priceless pieces in the collection for evacuation to safety in the Urals. The deprivation and fear that was felt are real for the reader as it was those who were doing this Herculean task each day. The present always brings the reader back to an awareness of Marina’s precarious state of mind. But her memories of the past and her knowledge of the collection in the Hermitage glow with perfection.
The dialogue around Marina's forgetfulness is extremely well done, and the Hermitage material has depth.
Starred Review. Spare, elegant language, taut emotion, and the crystal-clear ring of truth secure for this debut work a spot on library shelves everywhere.
Booklist - Allison Block
Starred Review. Dean eloquently describes the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Raphael, but she is at her best illuminating aging Marina’s precarious state of mind: "It is like disappearing for a few moments at a time, like a switch being turned off," she writes. "A short while later, the switch mysteriously flips again.
"USA Today - Carol Memmott
Classic war films and novels recount bloody battles and soldiers' violent, noble deaths. But in her debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean offers a sensitive portrayal of the non-combatants who suffer on the home front: Those people whose scarring wounds are caused by hunger, sickness, loneliness and deprivation. The novel is based on actual events surrounding Russia's efforts to save the Hermitage and its artwork during the 900-day siege of Leningrad, which began in 1941
Seattle Times - Ellen Emry Heltzel
Memory and the imagination are the gifts that keep on giving in "The Madonnas of Leningrad," an exceptional debut novel by Seattle writer Debra Dean. In this bifurcated story, an aging Russian immigrant living in Seattle loses her grip on the present and yields to the past, specifically the most intense period of her life: the years of deprivation and fear known as the siege of Leningrad. To her family, the old woman is succumbing to dementia. But to Marina Buriakov, the reward for her forgetfulness is the opportunity to revisit, room by room and painting by painting.
Historical Novel Society (UK)
This superb first novel by author Debra Dean tells the story of Marina, a young tour guide at the Hermitage Museum during the siege of Leningrad in World War II.