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Friday, March 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"The Madonnas of Leningrad": In a world of dreams lie reality and survival

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Madonnas of Leningrad"
by Debra Dean
William Morrow, 231 pp., $23.95

Memory and the imagination are the gifts that keep on giving in "The Madonnas of Leningrad," an exceptional debut novel by Seattle writer Debra Dean.

In this bifurcated story, an aging Russian immigrant living in Seattle loses her grip on the present and yields to the past, specifically the most intense period of her life: the years of deprivation and fear known as the siege of Leningrad.

To her family, the old woman is succumbing to dementia. But to Marina Buriakov, the reward for her forgetfulness is the opportunity to revisit, room by room and painting by painting, the Hermitage Museum, where she worked as German soldiers surrounded her city during World War II. It also allows her to reprise, during the weekend of her granddaughter's wedding, the beginning of a lifelong love affair with her patient and caring husband, Dmitri.

Then, as now, Marina's dream world becomes a "necessary illusion" — this time a bulwark against old age and declining health, then as her only defense against cold, hunger and death.

Coming up

Debra Dean will read from "The Madonnas of Leningrad" this month at these locations: • At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com). • At 7 p.m. Thursday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com). • At 3 p.m. March 26 at Seattle's Queen Anne Books (206-283-5624; www.queenannebooks.com).

Starting in 1941, Leningrad becomes a desperate place, and Marina takes us there to bear witness, even as she finds refuge — spiritually and emotionally speaking — in her beloved Hermitage. A tour guide there before war came close, Marina helps pack away the museum's art in anticipation of the German advance. She survives by feeding off her knowledge of those treasures, constructing "memory palaces" of the rooms they occupied. She petitions various Madonnas in the paintings to give her the tools and strength to survive.

Volleying between Russia then and the Pacific Northwest now, Dean manages to meld the two story lines and, more important, convey the value of art and a poetic sensibility.

"What is left that is heartbreaking? Not death: death is ordinary," Dean writes as Marina endures Leningrad during the war. "What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp. Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers. What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world."

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a book critic and writer who lives in Portland.

Her Internet column can be found at www.goodhousekeeping.com/bookbabes.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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