Review: Mannequin Girl

15Jun14

By virtue of the fact that there’s something to read in every room in my house, I do manage to squeak in a few extra books each month (those 5-minute intervals add up). My most recent “bonus book” is Ellen Litman’s Mannequin Girl, an 80s coming-of-age story set in the Soviet Union.

Mannequin Girl. Click through to read publisher catalog description.

Image obtained via author’s website. Click through to read more about the book.

We meet the protagonist, Kat Knopman, the summer before she enters first grade. Kat’s parents, who are both teachers, are brilliant, attractive, and well-liked, and Kat can’t wait to grow up to be just like them. However, her pre-school physical reveals that she has rapidly progressing scoliosis, a diagnosis that lands her in a school-sanitarium for children with physical disabilities and, eventually, confinement in a full-body brace.

The bulk of the novel revolves around Kat’s coming to terms with her disability (something she manages fairly well) and her parents’ failure to do the same. Her father, well-meaning Misha, pretends that Kat’s disability isn’t important. Though he’s kind enough about it, he isn’t willing to talk to Kat at length about her (or his) thoughts and feelings on the matter. Of course, given mama Anechka’s more dramatic responses, you could argue that Misha’s got his hands full already. Determined to have a “normal” child, Anechka subjects herself to a string of pregnancies and subsequent losses that wreck her both physically and mentally. Meanwhile, Kat bumbles through school and its social challenges, trying to figure out what her strengths and gifts are, and how she can use them to convince her parents she really is worthy of their love and attention.

It’s a bleak novel, to be sure, set as it is in a crumbling Soviet landscape. Kat’s survival is not a triumph of the will or a feel-good story: it’s just how things work. You make do with what you have and play the cards you’re dealt, because nobody’s coming around with new cards. As a little girl, Kat desperately wants Misha and Anechka’s love and approval, but over time, and with age, she learns to figure out what she wants for herself, and then to go get it (friendships, sex/love, some kind of career path, etc.). Although her path is still unclear at the novel’s end, the reader gets the sense that, free of the need to please her parents, Kat will succeed in life on her own terms.

Mannequin Girl is primarily a novel about children struggling to individuate from their parents, a process that is complicated by the presence of disability, and by the setting in a time period and culture with which the reader might not be familiar. There are a lot of “isms” floating around this book, including anti-Semitism, communism, and ableism, that make for a complex narrative not easily absorbed on one read. It’s not a feel-good book, but it is a think-well book, one you’ll be thinking about long after you’ve finished the last chapter. Recommended for people who like literary fiction, as well as stories about children and teens that aren’t necessarily YA lit.

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