Man­nequin Girl: A Novel

  • Review
By – March 13, 2014

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

Read Ellen Lit­man’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Search­ing for My People

Quo­tas: On Being Jew­ish in Pre-Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Rus­sia and Sovi­et Russia

Pen­ny Metsch, MLS, for­mer­ly a school librar­i­an on Long Island and in New York City, now focus­es on ear­ly lit­er­a­cy pro­grams in Hobo­ken, NJ.

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