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Sarah Manguso discusses predations and deprivations in her novel "Very Cold People".

Sarah Manguso is a well-known author who has written several meticulously examined, surgically honed books about how to deal with the mortal coil. Manguso's trilogy of contemplative autopathologies,

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Sarah Manguso discusses predations and deprivations in her novel "Very Cold People".

The Two Kinds of Decay (2008) and The Guardians (2012), explored Manguso's rare autoimmune disorder that struck her in her twenties. She also discussed the consequences of her friend's suicide and her attempts at making sense of time and memory by compulsively keeping meticulous diaries that documented every moment.

The best of Manguso’s hard-won insights, like the work of contemporary essayists Leslie Jamison and Emily Rapp, Sheila Heti and Katherine May, resonate beyond her personal afflictions.

Manguso has distilled her elliptical prose further into aphorisms in her latest book 300 Arguments. She now expands her scope, but not her terse style, with Very Cold People. This coming-of age story is set in 1980s New England. It's a stark look at what it means to feel poor, neglected, and unloved in a class conscious, lily-white town with antique houses built and occupied generations of Emersons and Cabots.

Ruth is the narrator. She knows from a young age that Ruth's Jewish mother, a stay-at-home mom, and her Italian father (a cash-strapped, accountant) don't belong there. Particularly, her pathetic observations about her mother send readers skidding from one spot of deadly black ice to the next.

Ruth isn't one of those people who can see the world with rose-colored glasses. Ruth is uncharitable and ruthless. She is a chronicler of her mother's narcissism, starting with her imitation brahmin accent and her belief that she is the "protagonist of everything." Ruth is disgusted at her mother's binging and her "cheap shiny evening gowns that poorly covered her lumpy body" Ruth can't help but compare the disgusting powdered milk and the bruised, discounted produce that her mother purchases with the food she eats at friends' houses.

Although her mother may make an occasional effort to help Ruth with her homework, she tends to stay in bed most of the time and won't get up even if Ruth is hurt in an icy fall while on her way home.

Ruth's childhood was plagued by a constant, bone-chilling cold. Ruth must wear "the warming sweater" (her mother's name for it) to keep warm in their house. She is allowed to only fill the bathtub to the top of her hand.


 

Manguso wrote in a single paragraph that "On winter mornings, the light spreads like a watery soup over the landscape." Ruth loves the sound of her father's beveled plastic scraping the ice from the car's windshield. It sounds "like a giant filing its nails."

Deep chill can be more than just frigid temperatures. Ruth writes, "The background of mine life was white and angry with violent weather."

As a way to get out, she spends her days in Waitsfield reading about runaways and orphans, as well as getting good grades. She makes a few new friends along the way, including one girl who proudly owns her poverty. Ruth says, "My girlhood felt like it was 1650 when it was actually happening." Little parties, kindnesses from friends, and the light as I walk home after school. Pine needles. I felt half-there and not fully committed to my life those days.

Gradually, she realizes that her wealthier friends also have their heavy crosses to carry. These are often more perilous than hers. None of these girls do well. However, Ruth does better than her friends, whether it's luck or her sharp wits.

Very Cold Person isn't a novel that one reads for the plot. However, I hesitate to comment too much on how Ruth's stories, aunt, cousins and mother weave together in this sobering account of the harm done by predatory adults to young girls' lives. This understated version of what is now known as the trauma plot offers a glimpse of hope. It's the narrator’s escape from the horrible circumstances that shaped her mother.

Very cold People is not a book that will brighten winter days. However, it does what we expect from good literature: It grabs our attention and inspires empathy and reflection.


 

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