For Ruthie, the frozen, snow-padded town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, is all she has ever known. But this is no picturesque New England. Once "home of the bean and the cod, where Lowells speak only to Cabots, and Cabots speak only to God," by the 1980s it is an unforgiving place, awash with secrets. Very Cold People tells Ruthie's story, through her eyes: from the shame handed down through her Italian and Jewish immigrant forebears and indomitable mother, to the violences and silences endured by each of her high school friends, each suffering a fate worse than the last. For Ruthie, Waitsfield is a place to get out of—and a girl like her would be lucky to get out alive.
Best known as a memoirist and essayist, Manguso also writes poetry, and this is apparent in her fiction. Though dealing with life’s ugly, messy truths, her writing is compact and beautiful ... Manguso is terribly poignant on little Ruthie’s faith in a maternal love that isn’t really there, and her dawning comprehension of what might have made it impossible. But in damning increments, she also shows how feminine identity in America can be built up with material objects...and then torn down by violation, sexual and otherwise ... So masterly is Manguso at making beauty of boring old daily pain that when more dramatic plot turns arrive — suicides, teen pregnancies — they almost seem superfluous, visitations from an after-school special. The book is strong enough as a compendium of the insults of a deprived childhood: a thousand cuts exquisitely observed and survived. The effect is cumulative, and this novel bordering on a novella punches above its weight.
... a novel in which nothing very much happens for about 100 pages but small objects – Barbie dolls, Girl Scout sashes, bubble gum, nail polish, a knitted scarf – assume vast significance, and small kindnesses feel overwhelming ... unfolds like a much darker version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda – only told at a glacial speed, with no Miss Honey coming to the rescue ... composed of units of writing that are sometimes so short, they feel like wisps of thought. Fans of Gwendoline Riley and Catherine Lacey’s unconventional stories about family and community dysfunction are also likely to appreciate Manguso’s pitiless, minutely observed prose ... But Very Cold People is so different from anything else I’ve read that it feels a bit fatuous to compare it to other works of fiction. We often talk about writers getting under the skin of their characters, but Manguso has a forensic interest in hair follicles, rashes, effluvia and infected cuts. By writing about these girls’ relationships with their bodies, she picks at the scab of generational trauma and shame. It’s a masterclass in unease. I must confess that I was relieved when the novel was over but it was so skilful, so strange and so unique that I suspect it will stay with me for a very long time.
It’s impossible to read Manguso’s novel without wondering how much of the writer’s own life is in it ... But to look for her between the lines misses the point in a book that gets at larger truths about countless girls caught in the cycle of generational trauma ... Manguso’s attention to the chilliness and reservation of certain New Englanders crackles like a room-temperature beverage poured over ice ... Ruthie’s short, vivid memories accumulate like snowflakes on a windowsill, many centered on her complicated relationship with her difficult mother, a woman whose coldness is its own distinctive parenting style ... Manguso captures both the repelling and beautiful aspects of girls’ bodies...what’s visible and what shimmers right underneath the surface ... What elevates Very Cold People above a traditional coming-of-age novel is Manguso’s insistence on not being fooled by exterior markings ... Manguso portrays the fears surrounding girlhood with a blistering clarity.