The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean (the one in between) turned out to be a pretty good book. It started out slowly for me and I wasn't sure I was going to like it. The book takes place in two time periods: one during the siege of Leningrad in WWII and the other in present day Pacific Northwest, focusing on Marina, a Russian immigrant who has Alzheimer's. Dean's treatment of the present day story felt stilted to me at first; I was wishing it was just the Russian story. But either it improved as the novel progressed or I got used to her style.
In Leningrad, Marina works as a tour guide for The Hermitage - a massive art museum that contains some of the world's most precious art. When it becomes clear that Germany will invade Leningrad, the staff and hundreds of volunteers work day and night for weeks, packing up the art (millions of pieces) and sending it off to an undisclosed location. Most of the painting frames are left on the walls. Marina lives with her aunt and uncle and many others in the basement of the museum during the bombing raids - survival is hand to mouth with both food and heat becoming scarce through the long frigid winter. Dean's descriptions of the desperation of the refugees is stunning.
Marina learns from an old cleaning woman the importance of keeping the art alive by storing it in her "memory palace." Marina spends her weeks wandering the museum, recalling details about every painting that hung in the museum -- and even some she'd never seen.
In present day Seattle, Marina is attending the wedding of her granddaughter. Her daughter Helen hasn't seen her for many months and is shocked at her memory loss and distressed that neither her father, Dmitri, nor her brother Andrei have told her about her mother's Alzheimer's. Marina, who had never spoken of the war, begins to reveal some of her life in Leningrad.
Dean's use of the devastation of Alzheimer's is an effective vehicle to weave the two time periods together. Good writing, wonderful characters with a bit of magical realism tossed in. Recommended.
As for the worst -- Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen is a book I looked forward to reading. I enjoy witchy stories and magical realism. Suffice it to say I found this book trite and predictable and a bit ridiculous. I can't recommend this book unless you enjoy cliche and pretty bad chick lit. I was stunned by the rave reviews this book got on Library Thing.
To be fair, Garden Spells had a tough act to follow, as I had just finished one of the best books of the year (or possibly the decade), The Girls by Lori Lansens. Rose and Ruby are identical twin sisters. They've never seen each other's faces, except in mirrors. They are conjoined twins, joined at the skull; separation is impossible without both of them dying. This book grabbed me from the first paragraph.
As the story unfolds, the girls are approaching their 30th birthday. Rose is writing her autobiography, which of course, must include Ruby's story too. Reluctantly, Ruby begins to add to the book; neither of them read what the other has written. Rose tells the story of their birth - it happens during a rare tornado in southern Ontario; their birth mother abandons them and they are adopted by the nurse who delivers them. Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash give them a loving home and a strong sense of self. Lovey defends them fiercely -- and will not tolerate self pity.
Rose and Ruby's relationship is complex and touching and sad and lovely. They literally don't see the same things and their stories don't always jive. Their personalities are quite different, and they struggle with the same issues as most children, teens and young adults.
One reviewer thought this book was morbid. I thought it was stunning; Lansen did a remarkable job of staying true to each character's voice and of addressing the unique challenges of Rose and Ruby and still portraying them as so normal in their responses and emotions, as they should be. Another reviewer thought that Lansens had no right to tell this story -- because, presumably, she isn't a conjoined twin--?? I couldn't disagree more. She tells it with great compassion, tenderness, humor and respect. Highest recommendation.
Next up: Olive Kitteredge and Sweetsmoke (an Early Reviewers book).
Have a great week! I am on vacation this week, which doesn't hold quite the same excitement for me as usual, since my retirement is a mere 67 days away!!!!