The Madonnas of Leningrad is a lovely piece. The language is rich, but it isn’t a slow read – it’s easy to pick up.
It flits – well, most of the time – between two stories. A woman in the US, growing older and struggling with dementia. And her earlier experiences, as a tour guide in the Hermitage before and then during World War II. In particular, she struggles through the siege of Leningrad. Some of the horror of that experience is evoked, but only lightly; this isn’t an in-depth treatment of that, and it doesn’t fully convey, I don’t think, the horrific nature of what that experience might have been like. It’s still easy to feel as though things are redeemed by the transformative power of art; or at least to feel some sense of detachment from the characters’ suffering and pain, which I don’t think would have been the case if it was evoked more strongly.
A lovely read – well worth it.
EDIT: I’ve just remembered another point I wanted to mention. Reading the afterward, I find that Debra Dean had no first hand experience of what she’s writing about. She only travelled to St Petersburg after her novel had been accepted (there’s an interesting account of her experience visiting at the end of the book). I don’t think that’s a problem at all, but I think it’s an interesting example of that tension between what it is that makes a good piece of fiction, and our ideas of authenticity in telling particular stories.