Review: A crisp and icy portrait | Book reviews and short stories


“Very Cold People” by Sarah Manguso; Hogarth, 208 pages, $26.

In a 2013 interview, Sarah Manguso observed that “the threat of being boring, of including too much, might be a particular peril” of memoir writing. But given her ever-growing bibliography of succinct and rigorous work, that’s not a peril she’s succumbed to so far.

Since 2002, Manguso has published two collections of poetry and five works of prose, including the acclaimed memoir “The Two Kinds of Decay” in 2008 and the aphoristic “300 Arguments” in 2017. Intellectually rigorous and formally meticulous, his work tends to Possess seriousness of tone and concerted consideration, as well as biting perfectionism and a zealous concern for brevity. Thin and clean, using her vast white space wisely, her debut novel, “Very Cold People,” continues in this exacting vein.

Told in a series of vignettes set in the snowy, coveted fictional town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, this brief novel follows its protagonist, Ruthie, as she grows up under the frigid care of her housewife, Jewish-American mother, and accountant. , Italian-American father. , as well as the predatory attentions of male teachers, coaches, parents and doctors. Waitsfield is a place where “on wintry mornings the light spreads like a watery broth over the landscape” and where richness and whiteness are rarely called by those names, even as they dominate a hierarchy that places all remains in a position of shame mixed with aspiration.

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Ruthie observes, “My mother used to cut wedding invitations out of the Courier, the only newspaper in town,” adding, “Maybe the groom was a Cabot, and the bride was an Emerson, and they sat on the boards of libraries and museums. my mom didn’t know these people, but she liked the way they looked on our fridge.”

In their insufficiently old and historic home, “creditors called all day and late into the evening”, causing Ruthie to “pick up the phone and say I was home alone”.

With icy precision and biting wit, Manguso carves out a medium in which class and gender are silenced by hot air to the American dream. Ruthie’s mother hangs ‘antique prints of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the walls as if we were living inside a schoolgirl report’, making sure Ruthie understands these characters are ‘more important than anyone in my family.”

Manguso has an unerring eye for the details that characterize a certain type of Gen X girl, including sticker collections and friendship pins and how “everything smelled like strawberry back then — stickers, lip gloss, hair. “. But far from being an exercise in nostalgia, memories of the novel build up into something more unsettling.

Ruthie’s Powers of Observation charts everything, including how fifth grade girls play four squares in a less carefree way than fourth graders: “It wasn’t so much that they had the look different; they just looked like they knew they were being watched.”

Like a sculpture made of icicles, each brick of Spartan prose accumulates into a single structure. Short as it is, “Very Cold People” feels monumental: a frozen cenotaph for the not-so-distant past.

Kathleen Rooney is the author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and, most recently, “Dear Friend and Major Whittlesey”.

Alycia R. Lindley