I’m just finishing up a debut novel by Debra Dean called The Madonnas of Leningrad, a must-read for art lovers and anyone who wants to know what it was like to survive the terrible winter of the Nazi seige of Leningrad. The protagonist is a docent in Leningrad’s enormous museum called The Hermitage, but as the Nazis descend, she is called upon to help pack up the art works to be shipped to a safe location, then to spy out fires set by Nazi bombs, then to maintain a water-soaked building.
Juxtaposed against this story in intermittent chapters is the story of her marriage and descent into Alzheimers in old age.
The dramatic fracture the juxtaposition causes is not disorienting, though I am continually evaluating which story most intrigues me. The stories each inform the other, so for example, the Leningrad material gradually reveals how the marriage actually came about, and the Alzheimer’s story (interesting in itself) is delivering material that might be delivered in an epilogue in a linear novel.
In addition to the time being fractured, so is place. The historical Leningrad setting is radically different from the contemporary American locale of the Alzheimer’s story, where we meet the protagonists eventual family as they meet for a wedding and struggle to deal with the problem of how to secure their elderly parents’ increasingly endangered lives.
(Being an art lover myself, an additional intrigue is all the named paintings. Many of the paintings I’ve seen in person–living in a city with a wonderful art museum as well as traveling to many I’m wanting to reread the book with a computer so I can examine all the details.)
The madonna motif is presented in many paintings, then completed by the mysterious pregnancy of the protagonist, this in utero character appearing as an adult in the contemporary story.
I really love this novel. Though the protagonist is not a famous person as in my fictional biographies, the structure serves as a paradigm for a way to set up a life where the time frame is not limited to 17 months as in my Darwin novel.
Here’s the Hermitage Museum website:
Here’s an interesting interview with the author where she describes her process: