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Cutting Teeth


Cutting Teeth

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in a baby carriage…and then comes the fear. In CUTTING TEETH, the latest in Chandler Baker’s repertoire of darkly feminist thrillers, modern motherhood is exposed as an unachievable set of standards when a disturbing medical condition begins to make the rounds at a picture-perfect preschool.

When Rhea gave birth to her son, Bodhi, she felt that her heart had been extracted, taken out of her chest and inserted into the most perfect little boy she had ever seen. Her opinion hasn’t changed much now that Bodhi is four years old, and she is watching her heart play with trucks and fingerpaint, and indulge in sensory stimulators. The world of Little Academy preschool is full of primary colors, soft textures and children with all the potential in the world, especially according to their mothers: Rhea and her best friends, Darby and Mary Beth.

Single mother Rhea is the crunchy granola earth mama of the group, and along with doting on her precious son, she runs a business curating essential oils. She’s a one-woman show, and that means keeping Bodhi’s coparenting dad at arm’s length (if not farther). This gives her sole responsibility for every aspect of Bodhi’s life, including his organic, all-natural diet. Rhea is no stranger to judgment, but she’s equally adept at facing it head-on. So when Miss Ollie, the popular new teacher at Little Academy, questions Bodhi’s health, it’s an all-out war.

"Both a searing social commentary on female friendships, community ties and modern motherhood, and a riveting murder mystery, CUTTING TEETH is delightfully weird, jaw-droppingly brilliant and wickedly funny."

Darby, meanwhile, is a peacekeeper. She was once captain of her college’s varsity volleyball squad and then senior publicist at a brand management agency, but now is an overqualified crisis manager and a SAHM (that’s “stay-at-home mom” for those of you who don’t follow mommy bloggers). She has given up her career, the contentment of her marriage and, most painfully, her body to motherhood. She loves her daughter, Lola, but when Lola enters a difficult phase, these sacrifices seem to loom over her. Like any other four-year-old, Lola throws tantrums, but the violence of them has been increasing lately, to the point that one of her best friends since birth, Noelle, no longer wants to speak to her. This is a problem, given that Noelle’s mother is none other than Mary Beth.

Mary Beth is the epitome of a 1950s housewife. She runs fundraisers, cooks for meal trains and can quote Bible verses, and she is often the voice of reason (or at least compromise) in their mommy club. Mary Beth has sacrificed every waking minute to her daughters, Noelle and Angeline, and the good of her community, but it has come at a cost: debilitating migraines that are as likely to set her spinning as they are to make her vomit up the raw grains that Rhea demands they all eat at lunches. But motherhood also has cost her the spark of her marriage, and a new tattoo-sporting, muscle-armed crush has her thinking about her sex life with her husband…and not in a satisfied way.

As the three women navigate womanhood, motherhood and everything in between, they commiserate on the highs and lows: the precious, sloppy kisses, the tear-stained tantrums, the loss of their independence. They compare and contrast milestones, offer advice on child-rearing, and take pride in their children’s growth and friendships with one another.

But then the biting starts. Normally an age-appropriate phase, the biting of Bodhi, Lola and Noelle takes on a new severity when they develop a taste for blood…particularly that of their mothers. Miss Ollie and her PhD assure the women that pediatric Renfield’s syndrome is a documented condition that causes its sufferer to crave blood. But if there’s one thing mothers know, it’s that the suffering of their children is unbearable. Since it’s only a phase (it must be, right?), Rhea, Darby and Mary Beth give in, literally letting their children bleed them dry.

But when blood --- rather than fingerpaints --- splatters the walls of Little Academy and Miss Ollie turns up dead, it seems that the vampiric condition of the four-year-olds has reached a climax, and the children are not just witnesses to the violent crime, but suspects. As their mothers descend upon the ensuing case, each one makes misguided decision after misguided decision to protect her child, often with disastrous results.

As Baker alternates between each mother’s perspective, along with police transcripts with the children, it becomes clear that they know more than they are letting on about the day of Miss Ollie’s death and will do anything in their power to protect their little ones…or at least his or her reputation. After all, in a world where preschools require applications and every achievement means a new opportunity, a reputation is almost the same as a living, breathing person. But then what does that say about the naughty mommies of Little Academy, each of whom is desperate to live up to an unreachable set of standards placed upon her, not just by society but by her friends, frenemies and herself?

Both a searing social commentary on female friendships, community ties and modern motherhood, and a riveting murder mystery, CUTTING TEETH is delightfully weird, jaw-droppingly brilliant and wickedly funny. As the four-year-olds of her novel play, bite and reach milestones, their mothers struggle with norms: When is a sacrifice too much, even if it means giving your child the best? If your mothering looks different from another woman’s, is one of you necessarily right or better? And, finally, just how many times can a mom be told (or believe herself) that she is wrong, not doing enough or somehow damaging her child? As always, the author’s conclusions are spot-on, and her ability to twist them into digestible bits of satire is unparalleled.

Baker first unpacked the misogynistic, patriarchal world of office politics in WHISPER NETWORK, and I said to myself, “Wow, this is an incredible new author.” Then she went for the heart of the inequalities of marriage in THE HUSBANDS, and I decided, “This is an auto-buy author for me.” Now that she has tackled (and ripped open) the world of modern motherhood in CUTTING TEETH, I have only one thought: No one, and I do mean no one, writes social commentary like Chandler Baker.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 21, 2023

Cutting Teeth
by Chandler Baker