Sarah Manguso made a name for herself with several minutely observed, surgically honed books that grapple with questions about how best to cope with this mortal coil. In a trio of contemplative auto-pathologies — “The Two Kinds of Decay (2008),” “The Guardians (2012),” and “Ongoingness (2015)” — Manguso explored the rare autoimmune disease that struck in her twenties, the ramifications of a friend's suicide, and her attempts to capture and make sense of memory and time by keeping compulsive, obsessive diaries that recorded every moment.
Like the work of contemporary essayists Leslie Jamison, Emily Rapp, Sheila Heti, and Katherine May, the best of Manguso's hard-won insights resonate beyond her personal afflictions.
In her most recent book, “300 Arguments,” Manguso distilled her spare, elliptical prose even further, into aphorisms. Now she expands her purview — though not her terse style — with a chilling first novel, “Very Cold People.” Set in the 1980s in a small, frigid New England town, this coming-of-age story offers a stark take on what it is to feel poor, poorly nurtured, and inadequately loved in a class-conscious, lily-white town whose antique houses were built and occupied by generations of Cabots and Emersons.
The narrator is Ruth, who from a young age knows in her gut that her Jewish stay-at-home mother and her Italian father, a cash-strapped accountant, don't belong in such a place. Her pitiless observations about her mother, in particular, send readers skidding from one patch of lethal black ice to another.
Ruth is not one of those people lucky enough to see the world through rose-colored glasses. She is an uncharitable — ruthless! — chronicler of her narcissistic mother's many deficiencies, beginning with her airs and imitation brahmin accent, and the fact that she thinks she is "the protagonist of everything." Ruth is disgusted by her mother's bingeing and "cheap shiny nightgowns that poorly concealed her lumpy body." She can't help but contrast the nasty powdered milk and bruised, discounted produce her mother buys with the food served in friends' homes.
True, her mother does make the occasional effort, like fabricating paper crowns for one of Ruth's birthday parties, but she spends much of her time in bed and refuses to bestir herself even when Ruth is injured in an icy fall on her way home from school.
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A pervasive bone-chilling cold suffuses Ruth's parsimonious childhood. In their underheated house, Ruth has to don what her mother calls "the warming sweater" over her regular sweater to stay warm, and is only allowed to fill the bath to the height of her hand.
In a particularly beautiful one-line paragraph, Manguso writes, "On winter mornings the light spread like a watery broth over the landscape." Ruth loves the sound of the beveled plastic her father uses to scrape the ice off the car's windshield, "like a giant filing his nails."
But of course the deep chill is about much more than frigid temperatures. "The background of my life was white and angry, with violent weather," Ruth writes.
She bides her time in aptly named Waitsfield, reading books about orphans and runaways, and collecting good grades as a ticket out. Along the way, she manages to make a few friends — including a girl who owns her poverty proudly. Ruth comments, "My own girlhood felt like something from 1650 even when it was happening. The little parties, kindnesses done by friends, the light as I walk home from school. Pine needles. I spent those days feeling half-there, not quite committed to that life."
She gradually realizes that even her two wealthier friends have their own heavy crosses to bear, which are more insidious than hers. None of these girls fare well, but whether by luck of the draw or her sharp wits, Ruth does better than her friends.
“Very Cold People” is not a novel one reads for plot, but I hesitate to say too much about how the stories of Ruth's friends, aunt, cousins, and mother deftly dovetail in this sobering portrait of the damage wrought by predatory adults on young girls' lives. The glimmer of hope in this understated variant of what has come to be called the trauma plot is in the narrator's escape and gradual understanding of the terrible circumstances that warped her mother.
While not a book to brighten a winter day, “Very Cold People” does what we ask of good literature: It absorbs our attention and stirs empathy and reflection.
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