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This passage is from The Children's Bach by Helen Garner

Dexter emptied his bowl for the last time, then lifted it in both hands and licked it out, pushing his face right into it. There was soup on his nose, his chin and the front of his hair. He wiped it off on the sleeve of his jumper and sat back with a sigh. He was fed: now he could be sociable again. Nothing, thought Vicki, could be worse than the way he eats. Now things can only get better.

The soup was thick. The bread was fresh. The stove’s dry heat reddened their cheeks. The walls curved in around them. Outside the house, which was at the bottom of a neglected street, no cars passed.

Not late, but in a starry cold that lifted them off their feet, they went out to the car.

Does "Now things can only get better." mean:

  1. Only from now on his behavior will become better?

  2. Only from now on Vicki will feel better sitting there in their home?

Is Vicki thinking that now things can only get better?

Is "starry cold" used metaphorically, meaning: very cold?

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  1. Vicki observes that Dexter eats in an incredibly sloppy, even disgusting, way. She thinks that the worst thing about the entire situation is the way he eats; he could not possibly be any more off-putting. Nothing at all could match the awfulness of his table manners. So you are correct: Vicki is thinking that "now things can only get better," because he has finished eating and the worst is over.

  2. Presumably this scene takes place at night. If the stars are visible, it means there are no clouds. A clear, cloudless night is colder than a cloudy night, because the cloud cover prevents the earth's heat from escaping. So the starry cold is literal; it is extremely cold because the night is cloudless, cold enough to metaphorically lift them off their feet.

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‘Things can only get better’ is a general phrase expressing optimism for the future after bad experiences. Similar to ‘the only way is up’, it expresses the view that the worst is past and improving circumstances are inevitable.

This is a standard phrase with no particular special meaning in context.

(Edit: Having dug about a bit more at the plot of this novella, without having access to the whole thing to read, I would now say that the use of the phrase in context is in the nature or foreshadowing, things can indeed, get worse for some of the characters and aspects of Dexter's behaviour will be part of it. Dexter will also be disgusted by his own behaviour)

‘Starry cold’: clear nights when you can see the stars are colder than cloudy nights. Per Wikipedia on Nocturnal Surface Cooling:

Radiative cooling is commonly experienced on cloudless nights, when heat is radiated into space from the surface of the Earth, or from the skin of a human observer.

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