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If All 2012: DISCUSSION POINTS FOR READERS OF The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

DISCUSSION POINTS FOR READERS OF The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

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The Writer & Her Craft

• How does the title set the tone for the book? How does it relate to the story told?

• Dean chose a quotation from Russian Romantic writer Alexander Pushkin (“But now I know, while beauty lives / So will my power to grieve”) to serve as an epigraph. What mood does the author establish for the book by starting with these lines?

• The author begins the book with a description of the Hermitage Museum during the siege, using one of the paintings on display as a counterpoint to the sufferings of those who were sheltering in its cellar. Who is narrating this first scene and subsequent similar tours of the museum and who is this information being conveyed to? What other purpose might this narrative strategy serve?

• How do the interludes describing paintings reflect the larger narrative(s) or connect the two eras of Marina’s life?

• How does the author inform the reader about the settings (two in particular) her characters are exploring?

• How does the author balance the two different narrative eras?

• The tale is most often told from the perspective of Marina. How does Marina’s position as a potentially unreliable narrator affect your reading of the/her story?

• How does Dean manage to portray Marina’s confusion and memory loss with such dignity, from the very first pages of the book?

• How do the occasional shifts of narrative point of view offer a new perspective? One example is on page 25, when the stranger watches Marina and Dmitri say goodbye at the park and says “It is a timeless story being reenacted, repeated, over and over, for centuries. Nothing changes. Only the young couple themselves do not know this.” Why does the author use this strategy and can you identify any other examples in the book?

• In what ways is the writing cinematic (think especially of scenes in the Hermitage)?

• How does Dean bring to life the paintings in the Hermitage?

• Dean was an actor, and enjoyed that craft. How is what she does as a novelist related to taking on a role as an actor? How is it related to what Helen does when she draws strangers?

• Why does Dean choose to elaborate on Helen’s point of view rather than that of Dimitri or Andrei?

• How does the author use symbols—whether visual or biblical or historical—to further the story?

• Discuss Dean’s writing style, especially her sentence structure, diction, tone, setting, narrative structure, and use of figurative language and imagery.

• What portions or aspects of the writing did you find most artful and enjoyable to read?

Characters & Motivation

• Why does Marina agree to marry Dimitri? How does the war influence their friendship and courtship?

• Why is there such a strong bond between Dmitri and Marina as young adults? How is their relationship portrayed after 60 years of marriage?

• Why don’t Dmitri and Marina talk about the earlier lives with their children, even when their daughter shows an interest in art? Or when their children are grown and memories begin to fail?

• How does Marina change throughout the course of the novel? How do other characters change?

• How do various characters in the novel exhibit sacrificial behavior? In what ways does it change them?

• As Marina is struggling with aging and memory loss, her daughter Helen is struggling with disappointments and regrets often associated with middle-age: her marriage has failed, her children have moved away, her art career has not flourished, and she has issues with body image. How do her feelings of failure, perhaps an inevitable part of the human condition, color her relationship with her mother? How does her mother’s memory loss and this crisis give her new perspective and insight?

• How does each family member cope with Marina’s increasing memory loss?

• What is the meaning of Marina’s vision of the golden-haired god on the roof of the museum? How does she see him?

• How do the setting of much of the book (in Russia) and the time (World War II) reflect Marina’s character?

• Marina’s memory deteriorates as she ages. How does it shape her experience of the world and her interactions with others?

• On p. 153, the author writes about Marina, “If she lets all the paintings disappear, she will be gone with them.” Examine how the elder Marina’s identity is tied up in the paintings she remembers.

Issues, Themes & Plot

• What defines a historical fiction and in what ways does The Madonnas of Leningrad fit that definition?

• How does the book differ from other narratives of War World War II with which you are familiar?

• What adjectives would you use to describe The Madonnas of Leningrad? Given the subject matter—war, starvation, dementia—is the novel’s view of the world bleak? What evidence can you provide?

• Why is it important for the narrative that Marina’s parents have died before the story begins? How different would Marina’s life have been if she had not been orphaned?

• The Krasnov family that takes shelter in the museum cellar is not “traditional” in that it consists of an uncle, and aunt, their niece and two absent younger children. How does this further the narrative?

• How are the contents/stories of the paintings related to Marina’s story?

• Starvation and death are familiar visitors to those struggling through the war in Leningrad. How do the citizens cope with illness and the loss of loved ones?

• What do readers learn about others’ experiences during the Siege of Leningrad as well as Marina’s own perceptions from the paintings she describes?

• The architect who shares his drawings of the Hermitage basement shelter and its inhabitants claims his work is not art but “documentation.” How do his drawings function differently from what was previously on the museum walls?

• Why are people excited about Marina’s pregnancy?

• How does Marina foresee her pregnancy? Why does she begin to have visions and what is their relation to the narrative?

• Some readers have found ambiguity in Marina’s conception, a few arguing that the baby is not Dimtri’s. What do you believe and what is your evidence? Do you think it is a weakness or a strength of the novel that this question remains unresolved?

• Although she claims not to be a believer, in what ways is Marina spiritual? How can one compare her spirituality with conventional religious beliesf?

• How are different types of “family” and nurturing portrayed and understood?

• How are the complications of the Buriakov family’s relationships depicted? Have they changed over time?

• How do the various landscapes become characters in the novel? How does landscape interact with the human characters and vice versa?

• In what ways does art feed the different characters?

• How is memory constructed for Marina as a young woman and as an old woman?

• The “memory palace” is much like the mandala of Buddhist and Hindu tradition, where multidimensional structures are created out of imagination. How do the constructions of “memory palaces” affect different people in the story?

• How are the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease portrayed? In the beginning lines of some of the first sections of the book, and on pp. 72 and 206, how does the author describe how Marina experiences it? What aspects of the disease does Marina appreciate (if fleetingly)?

• What is the effect on Marina of losing short-term memory but having her long-term memory intensify?

• Discuss how the following play out in the novel and how their presence changes the characters of the story: war, the struggle for survival, love, family, hope, memory and forgetting, beauty.

• Each human mind is an astounding repository of image, documentation and story. How important is it that those be preserved artistically or documented and passed on? What inhibits the passing on of historical and personal memory in families? What makes it more likely?

• What role does religious faith play in the novel? What miracles occur?

• What part does imagination play in Marina’s life—both during the war and in the present day?

• How is art portrayed as a means of survival?

• The novel could be considered to have 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 emotions or atmosphere does the last scene, related by the carpenter, create for the ending of Marina’s story? How would the novel be different if it ended with the cadets’ tour?

• At the end of the novel why does Marina refer to herself as a madonna?

• Consider again the epigraph by Pushkin. How does it sum up Marina’s life and perhaps that of all those who suffer through and with the effects of trauma?

• Dean writes on page 161, “What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world.” How does this relate to Marina’s experience? How do you as a reader respond to this statement? Can you relate it to your own experience?

Speculative Questions

• Does Marina’s habitual fluidity of thought make Alzheimer’s less frightening to her than to a more rigid, less artistic and imaginative soul?

• Would this story affect older readers differently from younger ones? Why?

• How does Marina’s experience of war compare to that of people in regions of conflict around the world today?

• At the end of the story, and nearing the end of her mother’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’ pasts that helped you feel you knew them better?

• What is the importance of continuing to tell stories of World War II? What is the relevance to the political situation in the United States, or around the world, today?

• How do stories function in a society and for the individual? What are the purposes of telling and retelling stories to ourselves and to others?

Related Writing Prompts

• Write the backstory of one of the paintings in the book that intrigues you most.

• Choose an object, place, landscape, being or face you know well, that you feel other people overlook or do not see in depth, and compose an informative and insightful “tour” of it.

• Write a description of an artwork that you know well.

• Write an ekphrastic poem or prose piece, one written in response to any singular work of art.

• Write a letter from the young Marina to her unknown future self and have the elder Marina respond.

• Start the other way. What would the elder Marina want to tell the young Marina?

• Famous examples of writers attempting to enter the mind of people with brains that function very differently from their own include Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest and William Faulkner’s “Benjy” Compson in The Sound and the Fury. This kind of empathy for other is a large part of why we value fiction. Think of a mind you would like to explore, and attempt to write a monologue or stream of consciousness piece from that point of view.