Book Review: Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“My parents didn’t belong in Waitsfield, but they moved there anyway.”
For Ruthie, the frozen town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, is all she has ever known.

Once home to the country’s oldest and most illustrious families–the Cabots, the Lowells: the “first, best people”–by the tail end of the twentieth century, it is an unforgiving place awash with secrets.

Forged in this frigid landscape Ruthie has been dogged by feelings of inadequacy her whole life. Hers is no picturesque New England childhood but one of swap meets and factory seconds and powdered milk. Shame blankets her like the thick snow that regularly buries nearly everything in Waitsfield.

As she grows older, Ruthie slowly learns how the town’s prim facade conceals a deeper, darker history, and how silence often masks a legacy of harm–from the violence that runs down the family line to the horrors endured by her high school friends, each suffering a fate worse than the last. For Ruthie, Waitsfield is a place to be survived, and a girl like her would be lucky to get out alive.

In her eagerly anticipated debut novel, Sarah Manguso has written, with characteristic precision, a masterwork on growing up in–and out of–the suffocating constraints of a very old, and very cold, small town. At once an ungilded portrait of girlhood at the crossroads of history and social class as well as a vital confrontation with an all-American whiteness where the ice of emotional restraint meets the embers of smoldering rage, Very Cold People is a haunted jewel of a novel from one of our most virtuosic literary writers.

Publication datePagesMy rating
Feb 8, 20222084/5 stars

If you read this book, make sure you have a hot cup of coffee and a fuzzy blanket on hand because it’s about to get cold 🥶. No, but really – I got chills reading this book. Don’t be fooled by the page count because this is far from a light read. This book was intense and heartbreaking and blood-boiling all at the same time, but I am very glad I took the time to read it.

Very Cold People is structured in short vignettes of Ruthie’s experiences as a child growing up in a neglectful and often cold household. While Ruthie faces neglect from her parents and other adults in her life, the novel portrays an interesting perspective on the cycle of childhood trauma and the way it is silently yet painfully perpetuated.

“She had no idea that a normal person would find it insane for a mother to ask her only child what color her eyes were. But I sensed that she was also trying to see what it would be like to be unattached to me. She was practicing, to see what it would be like to hurt me, a lot, to show how much she loved me. […] For a while, I’d have to suffer, out in the open, the only girl without extra sneakers for gym class, but it was only because my mother’s love was so much greater than all the other loves. It was that much more dangerous, so she had to love me in secret, absolutely unobserved by anyone, especially me.”

Very Cold People, page 82

One of the best things about this book is IT SHOWS and doesn’t TELL. Ruthie often senses when people do wrong things, but can’t really understand enough to articulate what is going on. These implied situations exhibit the way she has internalized her suffering (something many females do, unfortunately) and all I wanted to do throughout the entire book was reach through the pages and give Ruthie a hug.

Manguso also prompts critical discussions of what it means to be a woman today, in a society where change is long overdue but nevertheless occurring. The experiences and events experienced by the females in this book were heartwrenchingly honest. It is an invaluable reminder of the way society normalizes silence, especially when it comes to issues of inequity.

But it’s not all sad, I promise! I found the story to embody resilience in all its raw form. As Ruthie matures, she comes to better grasp the toxicity of the environment she grew up in, but also the idea that there were greater societal factors at play which affected the way she was parented. The narrative concluded with adult Ruthie reflecting on the struggles she faced in her upbringing with an awareness of the importance to ensure she does not displace that into her own family.

I do think the book was drawn out a little too long, because after a while some of the vignettes felt a little repetitive. A shorter story, I feel, would have had a greater and more profound impact on the reader.

Very Cold People is a very unique coming-of-age story. It is truly an unfiltered account of what childhood trauma can look like and its impact throughout development. The discussion it has about societal patriarchy, of neglect and past shame, is not far from our reality.

If you’re willing to shed a few tears in exchange for a very moving and powerful portrait of a child’s perspective, definitely give this read a try. And if you’re a parent, DEFINITELY read this, because Manguso gives excellent insight into the themes discussed above.

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