Mannequin Girl

Mannequin Girl

by Ellen Litman
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
12/16/2013
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. (Mar.)
Andrea Walker - People
“[A] tender, bittersweet coming-of-age tale.”
Penny Metsch - Jewish Book Council
“[This] coming of age story has a universality that rings true and poignant… [A] well crafted autobiographical novel… compelling.”
Lara Vapnyar
“Coming of age is pretty tough as it is. Now imagine going through it in a back brace. And in Soviet Russia. In her beautiful and tender novel, Ellen Litman shows the pain, awkwardness and isolation of adolescence better than anybody else.”
Margot Livesey
“Ellen Litman has written an entrancing and evocative novel about a girl who is always torn between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the rash and the rational. Kat is a wonderfully vivid character and I loved reading about her perilous years as a mannequin girl. If only they didn’t have to end, at least for the reader.”
Liz Moore
“Ellen Litman notices and captures details that electrify her writing. Her novel's premise is fascinating and its execution is skillful. Kat Knopman is a protagonist like none other I've come across.”
Library Journal
03/01/2014
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 (The Last Chicken in America) 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.—Jan Blodgett, Davidson Coll. Lib., NC
Kirkus Reviews
2013-12-21
From Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist Litman (The Last Chicken in America, 2007), 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. The dissident literature Anechka and Misha once risked arrest to distribute is openly available by 1988, but also out in the open is an ugly anti-Semitism that begins to restrict options for Jewish students like Kat and her volatile boyfriend, Nikita. 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393069280
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
03/17/2014
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

Ellen Litman is the author of the story collection The Last Chicken in America, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and for the Young Lions Fiction Award. She has been the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and her work has appeared in Best New American Voices, Best of Tin House, American Odysseys: Writing by New Americans, Dossier, Triquarterly, Ploughshares, and other publications. Born in Moscow, she teaches writing at the University of Connecticut and lives in Mansfield.

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