Mannequin Girl: A Novel

by Ellen Litman

(Norton, $25.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Ellen Litman immigrated to Pittsburgh from Moscow in 1992 when she was 19. After spending six years working as a software developer in Baltimore and Boston, she went back to school, earned an MFA from Syracuse University and won a Rona Jaffe Award for her writing. In 2007, she published a novel in stories called The Last Chicken in America, which became a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and for the Young Lions Fiction Award. Her work also has run in Best New American Voices, Best of Tin House, Ploughshares, and other journals. She lives in Mansfield.

What is this book about?

Is there a little girl anywhere who hasn’t admired beautiful models? Even one growing up in Soviet Russia? Even with a rapidly advancing case of scoliosis that is twisting her spine? Kat Knopman is that little girl, and her disease sends her away from the school at which her parents, Jewish (but not all that observant) intellectuals,  teach literature and drama, to a special school for kids with spinal diseases where an ugly and confining body brace awaits and the other students don’t display much sympathy. Kat has a lot to learn: about herself, brains and beauty, being Jewish in an anti-Semitic country and whether her parents are as perfect as she has always thought. This is a fine coming-of-age novel that shows that whatever the particulars, growing up is universally a challenge.

Why you’ll like it:

Littman writes gracefully and often with rueful humor, and though the situations she describes in her novel and stories often are difficult and depressing, her wit and insights make for a very entertaining reading experience. She is particularly good at creating sharp-minded heroines who appreciate life’s ironies, and while she has said that her work is not autobiographical, she herself certainly  is a sharp-witted author with a firm grasp of irony and the absurd.

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “Litman transports readers to her home city, Moscow, during the 1980s in this portrait of a besieged Russian Jewish family. Kat is dizzy with joy at the prospect of beginning first grade at the school in which her glamorously bohemian, slightly dissident, theater-devoted parents teach. Instead, Kat is diagnosed with severe scoliosis and sent to a regimented school-sanatorium where over the years she makes enemies and friends while enduring a painful body cast and the staff’s attempts to straighten out her unconventional mind as well as her curved spine. Her parents—stunning, tempestuous Anechka; kind, dreamy Misha—are overwhelmed by Kat’s predicament, Anechka’s emotionally compounded health problems, and Misha’s mother’s dementia. With surgical humor and supple sensitivity, Litman illuminates the struggles of both the spinally challenged and the straight-backed within a microcosm of the twisted, ailing, malignantly anti-Semitic Soviet state, in which typical coming-of-age angst is amplified. As teen Kat rebels, certain that no one will ever love her, Litman scrupulously traces a web of social and family conundrums in this strikingly lucid and affecting novel.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Litman chooses a claustrophobic setting for her second novel: a Soviet boarding school for children with scoliosis. As the story begins in 1980s Moscow, seven-year-old Kat is ready to start first grade at a new school—the same one where her parents, Anechka and Misha, are beloved, charismatic teachers who, in their private hours, host risky meetings of dissidents. But after Kat is diagnosed with scoliosis, she must leave her warm, chaotic family for the rigors of the “special school,” where she will be fitted for a brace (which resembles “the carcass of a prehistoric animal”) and faced with increasing prejudice against her Jewish heritage and pressure to conform to Communist ideals. When Kat reaches adolescence, Anechka and Misha come to teach at her school, ostensibly for her own good, but their presence only aggravates Kat’s troubles. Kat, refreshingly, isn’t painted as a blameless victim, but her needs—for her mother’s love, or love of any kind—are so relatable that she never becomes unsympathetic. Readers who can make it through the book’s grim early section will be interested to see how Kat does when the brace finally come off.”

Library Journal says: “Kat Knopman’s earliest years are carefree. Her parents, nominally Jewish, are moderate activist teachers and make life fun in 1970s Moscow. But their lives turn darker when Kat is diagnosed with scoliosis and her mother suffers a series of miscarriages. Kat finds herself an outcast at a special boarding school as her parents slide into quiet despair. But Kat is nothing if not determined. She’ll make a friend out of her worst tormentor and she’ll make peace with her place in the world. Litman deepens the usual coming-of-age tale with a sensitive illumination of disability and the lure and dangers of exceptionalism—whether imposed or adopted. VERDICT Accompanying Kat on her journey is painful at times for the reader, but a trip worth taking.”

“. . . a shrewd, observant coming-of-age tale set in the twilight years of the Soviet Union. Diagnosed with scoliosis at age 7, Kat is crushed to learn that she’ll be sent to a special boarding school on the outskirts of Moscow. She’d always expected to attend the school where her brilliant, bohemian parents, Anechka and Misha, shine as popular teachers so she can show off her own precocious intellect. Instead, she finds herself unpopular with the other boarding school students and disturbed by familial tensions when she visits home on weekends. Mercurial Anechka’s repeated, failed attempts to have another baby reinforce Kat’s sense that she’s disappointed her parents, and the massive body brace she’s forced to wear doesn’t help her self-esteem. Litman traces her bumpy progress from 1980 to 1988 entirely without sentimentality, showing Kat capable of being as mean as the kids who persecute her and revealing her parents (who join Kat’s school in 1984) as too wrapped up in their own problems to be much help to their troubled daughter. Litman is equally sharp on the shifting alliances of childhood: Kat’s mortal first-grade enemy, severely hunchbacked Seryozha, by the end of the book is the devoted friend who prods her to fulfill her longtime acting ambitions. The Soviet Union’s slow collapse is seen in the backdrop, for good and ill. . . . Litman deliberately keeps the dramatic incidents everyday (bullying, tale-bearing, an infidelity); she offers a snapshot of life rather than a grand artistic statement, in keeping with Kat’s final conclusion that “she doesn’t mind pedestrian, [it's] what she needs right now.” Smart, highly readable fiction propelled by a vulnerable and crankily appealing heroine,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?       

This novel can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain Branch.

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