STARRED REVIEW
March 2014

Growing up (a little crooked) in Soviet Russia

By Ellen Litman
Review by

Ellen Litman gives a new twist to the familiar coming of age/boarding school story (think A Separate Peace, Prep, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) in her second novel, Mannequin Girl. Set in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, it features the precocious daughter of two teachers whose life is radically changed when she receives a diagnosis of scoliosis.

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Ellen Litman gives a new twist to the familiar coming of age/boarding school story (think A Separate Peace, Prep, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) in her second novel, Mannequin Girl. Set in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, it features the precocious daughter of two teachers whose life is radically changed when she receives a diagnosis of scoliosis.

The story begins just before 7-year-old Kat Knopman is due to start first grade at the Moscow day school where her parents are teachers. Bright and just a little bit spoiled, Kat worships her parents, the beautiful but imperious Anechka and softhearted Misha. Young Jewish intellectuals, they are involved in the arts and dabble at the fringes of radical politics. But Kat’s dream of being their star pupil ends when she is sent to a boarding school on the outskirts of the city for children with spinal ailments. Kat proves to be tougher than even her formidable teachers, unsympathetic peers and grueling medical regimens, but the consuming disappointment of not being the healthy golden child she thinks her parents want proves more restrictive than any back brace. As she matures, Kat gradually comes to accept the flaws inherent in her parents, just as she begins to outgrow the debilitating disease.

Mannequin Girl is set just at the beginning of perestroika and what became the gradual dissolution of the Soviet system. This brought more freedom, but it also revealed an ugly rise in Nationalism and anti-Semitism, which curtails Kat’s opportunities as well as those of her friends and family.

Litman, who was born in Moscow, was herself diagnosed with scoliosis and spent many years attending a similar school/sanatorium. She writes sympathetically of the shifting alliances and friendships within a boarding school, as well as the gritty details of an adolescence spent in a full-body brace. In Mannequin Girl, she has written a sharp and occasionally tender novel with a prickly protagonist readers can’t help but care for.

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Mannequin Girl

Mannequin Girl

By Ellen Litman
Norton
ISBN 9780393069280

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