The main character is a Russian woman in her 80’s, now living in America. She is suffering with Alzheimer”s disease and the consequent loss of her “self”.
As Marina’s mind moves back and forth from the present to the ever more present past, due to the progressive nature of the disease, we learn about her life as a young woman in love, working for the Hermitage Museum, during the siege of Leningrad, complete with the awful conditions that existed as the city was surrounded by the German soldiers. We live through the years of starvation and deprivation as she lives in the cellar of the museum with more than two thousand employees, with little to eat, no heat or electricity and very little news of what is going on beyond the boundary of the museum.
One of the other employees convinces her that she should build a “memory palace” in her mind and they walk, endlessly, through the museum, room after room, memorizing the names and descriptions of paintings and other works of art that had been housed there.
We move back and forth in time with her and as she remembers the art work, we are treated to a view of the Hermitage Museum as she sees it in her mind, almost as if we are viewing the paintings with her. They come alive for us as we walk the halls with her.