The Madonnas of Leningrad


National Bestseller
Published in 21 languages
Notable Book of the Year, American Library Association
New York Times Editors’ Choice
Long-listed for the IMPAC International Dublin Literary Award
Booksense #1 Pick
Booklist Top Ten Novel of the Year

“An unforgettable story of love, survival, and the power of imagination in the most tragic circumstances. The rare kind of book that you want to keep but you have to share” –Isabelle Allende, best-selling author of The House of the Spirits

Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina’s grip on the everyday. And while the elderly Russian woman cannot hold on to fresh memories—the details of her grown children’s lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild—her distant past is preserved: vivid images that rise unbidden of her youth in war-torn Leningrad.

In the fall of 1941, the German army approached the outskirts of Leningrad, signaling the beginning of what would become a long and torturous siege. In the coming months, the city’s inhabitants would brave starvation and the bitter cold, all while fending off the constant German onslaught. Marina, then a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum, along with other staff members, was instructed to take down the museum’s priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, yet leave the frames hanging empty on the walls—a symbol of the artworks’ eventual return. To hold on to sanity when the Luftwaffe’s bombs began to fall, she burned to memory, brush stroke by brush stroke, these exquisite artworks: the nude figures of women, the angels, the serene Madonnas that had so shortly before gazed down upon her. She used them to furnish a “memory palace,” a personal Hermitage in her mind to which she retreated to escape terror, hunger, and encroaching death. A refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . . . 

Seamlessly moving back and forth in time between the Soviet Union and contemporary America, The Madonnas of Leningrad is a searing portrait of war and remembrance, of the power of love, memory, and art to offer beauty, grace, and hope in the face of overwhelming despair. Gripping, touching, and heartbreaking, it marks the debut of Debra Dean, a bold new voice in American fiction.

Praise for The Madonnas of Leningrad

“A novel that dares to be beautiful—and fully succeeds.” The Daily Mail (London)

"Dean writes with passion and compelling drama." People Magazine

“[A] heartfelt debut . . .Admirably humane in its determination to restore the dignity Alzheimer’s strips away. What’s more, it largely avoid the sentimentality that mars so much writing about the old and infirm.” New York Times Book Review

"[Dean's] descriptive passages and dialogue are painteresque and exquisitely drawn.” USA Today

"Rare is the novel that creates that blissful forgot-you-were-reading experience. This sort of transcendence is rarer still when the novel in question is an author's debut, but that is precisely what Debra Dean has achieved with her image-rich book...” Seattle Post-Intelligencer

This sumptuously elegant and emotionally moving first novel . . . will linger with you long after you’ve finished it . . . Exhilarating fiction . . . luminous and lovely throughout.” Providence Journal

“[A] remarkable first novel first novel about the consolation of memory . . . One of the pleasures of this novel, besides the splendid, understated writing and the insight Dean offers into surviving at all costs through inhuman conditions, is that after I’d finished the book I felt as though I’d had a long visit to the Hermitage, wandering through its unrivaled collection. NPR, “Nancy Pearl Book Review”