“Very Cold People”, by Sarah Manguso
Sarah Manguso has written seven books, but in her eighth, her first novel, she ventures into speculative literary fiction. The genre departs from its usual autobiographical non-fiction.
In “Very Cold People,” we follow Ruthie, the only daughter of Italian and Jewish parents, as she comes of age in Waitsfield, Mass., a freezing town full of settler descendants.
Sometimes naive and sometimes incredibly introspective, observant and sharp, Ruthie is a character you won’t forget. She bears the brunt of her mother’s disgust for her, as well as her father’s anger, and she watches her friends fall victim to the three fates that await the Waitsfield girls: death, pregnancy, or madness.
Written in beautiful prose, her passages may surprise you with their honesty and relativity: “For a while I should have suffered, in the open, the only girl without extra sneakers for gym class, but that was just because my mother’s love was so much greater than all other loves. It was all the more dangerous since she had to love me in secret, without being seen by anyone, especially me.
Each paragraph is a mini vignette, and when read as a cohesive work as a whole, they simultaneously offer a slice of life and a cradle-to-grave narrative.
Although the writing style is unique and refreshing, some of the content doesn’t ring true. Although Ruthie’s family struggled financially and made up for the lack of money with a purchase at a thrift store, a “heated sweater” to wear in the freezing house, and a bath filled to the height of a hand , as depicted in the very beginning of the novel, Manguso may have a skewed view of what true poverty is. She also describes Ruthie’s piano lessons, as well as three different pitchers of juice in the fridge, which don’t scream bad whether the orange juice is made from frozen concentrate or freshly squeezed fruit.
While Ruthie is described on the book’s cover flap as “awash in shame and feelings of inadequacy” due to her ethnicity, this isn’t really detailed in Manguso’s story. The family faces a racist comment on the first page of the book, but this storyline is not developed.
Fans of quick but engaging reads, small towns, and quirky characters will love this one.
Literally and metaphorically, the city and its inhabitants are indeed “very cold people”. This strong first novel is to have on hand – but you may need mittens.
Alex Reeve is a writer from Houston.