What happens to the elderly people while they are experiencing dementia or suffering from Alzheimer’s disease? Debra Dean explores this question in her debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad. It tells the story of Marina, an elderly woman who emigrated to the United States from Russia after World War II, and her family as they deal with her declining mental capacity. While honestly portraying the difficulties of caring for such a loved one, it is a novel full of beauty, solace, and hope.
When Marina slips away from her family in the present, she relives a significant time in her youth. Her early adulthood coincided with World War II. She lived in Leningrad during the long winter within which Germany’s offensive left her city in rubble without an adequate amount of food. Bombings left her apartment building partially destroyed. She lived with her Aunt and Uncle in the basement of the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad’s great art museum. This is where Marina goes – back to a time filled with art in the midst of starvation and death.
It is interesting how the people in Leningrad, including Marina, coped with the isolation, cold, and starvation – they obsessed about one thing. For Marina, it was memorizing the Hermitage as it was before they took all of the paintings down and shipped them to (supposed) safety. As part of her mental tour of the museum, Marina also memorizes paintings – mostly of Madonnas – that had been hidden prior to Marina’s arrival.
I have by no means experienced the physical and mental suffering that those people must have experienced, but when I am in a place in my life where I am having difficulty coping, I turn to those same types of obsessive thoughts. When I was in the midst of PPD, I would constantly relive Allison’s birth – most specifically replaying it in my head to identify those things that I could have done differently (read better). I would be interested to know how prevalent it is to revert inward like that.
It was also interesting to read this book from the perspective of Marina’s husband and daughter. How difficult it must be to have to care for a grown adult as if she were a toddler. If that weren’t bad enough, to have this woman whom you have loved with all your heart not even recognize you. The scene at the wedding reception was especially heartbreaking. My Uncle Ryan, my father’s oldest brother, is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I remember him as being young, intelligent, and vibrant. Now he seems even more feeble in many ways than his 90-year-old father. I hope that he can find a place somewhere in his soul to bring him comfort as he slips further away from us. This is the hope that Dean’s book has brought to me.
The Madonna’s of Leningrad is a poignant book about the life of the mind. Still also, it is a book about art and the meaning it brings. I believe the human elements of this story make this book a worthwhile read for everyone. If you love art and architecture, the descriptions of the Hermitage Museum and the art is contained will be an added bonus.