I’m not sure why I picked up Very Cold People in the first place. I must have read good reviews in print but that’s rarely enough to pick anything up (a lot of books get good reviews, ya know.). But something made me drawn to it and when I finally opened the first page I was completely sucked in, enwrapped in its tone and unsentimental style.
Very Cold People is a strange novel. It’s not necessarily a series of events, or plot points, but short paragraphs, almost vignettes, descriptions of small scenes peppered with perfectly detailed moments. The language can be spare, but the author can afford to be. She is deft at choosing the exact right napkins at a funeral or the uncomfortable stare from a strange relative. These are objects and feelings that already exist in your mind, and she chooses the right ones as if she’s plucking items off a supermarket shelf.
For much of the novel it’s as if nothing is happening, that it’s just a description of a young girl’s life in a 1970s/1980s New England town. But unbeknownst to you each detail is being slowly applied to our protagonist Ruthie, her family, and the town, forming something fuller.
Reading this novel felt like standing too close to a painting and then backing up. As each brushstroke is added a story emerges of people hiding secrets, suffering alone, erecting facades and harming others, never quiet coming to terms with their own trauma.
By the end of the novel, you understand that many details thought to be insignificant were in fact part of a greater story, part of a person hidden to everyone else. Manguso widens the lens, zooms out, and stories spiral backwards through the book revealing lives yearning for love but having it withheld in every needed moment.
So, yeah, I’ll admit, it’s not exactly a happy novel but there’s strength and hope there too, even if it doesn’t show up until much later.