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.