“A pity, such a pretty little figure. She’ll be our mannequin girl yet.” Kat, age seven, diagnosed with scoliosis and sent to a special boarding school/sanatorium for muscular-skeletal ailments, hears the doctor say this as she is getting fitted for a body brace she will wear for the next eight years. Mannequin Girl is set in Soviet Russia in the 1980s. Kat’s parents are intellectuals, teachers at an elite school. They are young, Jewish, bohemian, and dissidents. Their home is often filled with activists. She is their perfect, brilliant little star. The bar is set high for her at the outset, and she rises to it. Then disappointment sets in.
Ironically, Kat tells us as she prepares to leave home, she has always hated and feared deformities, and here she will be living with and surrounded by “deformed, freakish children.” As life at her school unfolds, she faces one challenge after another to accept, belong, excel, and shine, to be the “mannequin girl” to all. It is a rough road. The students are difficult. The teachers are unaffectionate. Early on she experiences an emotional and violent interaction with a severely afflicted boy. This will haunt her for a long time.
Set in the bleakest of nations, with only small glimmers of hope, this coming of age story has a universality that rings true and poignant. We read of parental expectations, heart-wrenching mother/daughter relationships, friendships both cruel and dear, emerging adolescent crushes and loves, and an ever present anti-Semitism — each molding and preparing the young adult to face the world as her own, confident self. It is affirming when Kat’s father at long last says, “There comes a moment, Button, when a person must decide things for herself. What’s right and what’s wrong. You can’t be hanging on to what we think…you must grow up.”
Ms. Litman grew up in the Soviet Union, was diagnosed with the same ailment, and wore a brace throughout her childhood. This well crafted autobiographical novel not only sheds light on life in Soviet Russia at that time, but tells a compelling story as well.
Related Content: Ellen Litman’s short story collection The Last Chicken in America