by Debra Dean (read June 2006)
A beautifully told story of a Soviet immigrant, Marina, who is slipping fast into the clutches of Alzheimer's. She drifts back and forth between her present life in Washington state and the past when she was a tour guide in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad at the beginning of WWII. As the Germans approach the city, Marina and other museum workers remove pieces of art to be shipped from the city. They were told to leave the frames hanging on the walls. Marina creates a 'memory place' in her mind based on the rooms and the artwork. These memories provide a retreat from the devastions of war - the hunger, cold and terror. It's interesting to me that the memories of the museum and of the war provide Marina with a 'memory place' to escape from her present day confusion.
In an early scene in the book Marina is standing at the kitchen sink holding a pan of water. "But she has no idea why. Is she rinsing the pan: Or has she just finished filling it up? It is a puzzle. Sometimes it requires all her wits to piece together the world with the fragments she is given: an open can of Folgers, a carton of eggs on the counter, the faint scent of toast. Breakfast. Has she eaten? She cannot recall." She questions if she is hungry or not, but can't tell. She decides she's hungry. When her husband walks in the room carrying the dirty breakfast dishes, he finds Marina poaching eggs.
Dean makes a comparison to the ravages of war and the ravages of Alzheimer's without spelling out what she is doing. The effect is subtle but powerful. An incredible book that I will be thinking about for years to come.