A heartfelt and deftly told coming-of-age story, Mannequin Girl captures the bleakness of Soviet Russia and the hopeful turmoil of adolescence.
"A perfect little figure," he says. "Our mannequin girl." She knows who mannequin girls are. They are in her grandmother's Working Woman magazines, modeling flouncy dresses and berets. "Bend," he tells her, and she does, so pliant, so obedient."
Growing up in Soviet Russia, Kat Knopman worships her parents, temperamental Anechka and soft-hearted, absent-minded Misha. Young Jewish intellectuals, they teach literature at a Moscow school, run a drama club, and dabble in political radicalism. Kat sees herself as their heir and ally. But when she's diagnosed with rapidly-progressing scoliosis, the trajectory of her life changes and she finds herself at a different institution—a school-sanatorium for children with spinal ailments. Confined to a brace, surrounded by unsympathetic peers, Kat embarks on a quest to prove that she can be as exceptional as her parents: a beauty, an intellect, and free spirit despite her physical limitations, her Jewishness, and her suspicion that her beloved parents are in fact flawed. Can a girl with a crooked spine really be a mannequin girl, her parents’ pride and her doctors’ and teachers’ glory? Or will she prove to be something far more ordinary—and, thereby, more her own? An unforgettable heroine, Kat will have to find the courage to face the world and break free not only of her metal brace but of all the constraints that bind her.
Litman chooses a claustrophobic setting for her second novel (after The Last Chicken in America): 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.