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With Teeth


With Teeth

Combining the heart and humor of her debut, MOSTLY DEAD THINGS, with a clear-eyed portrayal of a queer family, Kristen Arnett explores the delicate nature of family ties in WITH TEETH.

Sammie Lucas and her wife, Monika, used to be a fun lesbian couple. While Monika is and always has been a powerhouse in an edgy business suit, Sammie was once the wearer of mini skirts, drinker of shots and kisser of all the pretty girls at the queer bars they frequented. But that all changed when they decided to try for children. Although they and their friends are endlessly grateful for the strides taken by their queer brothers and sisters before them, and the rights --- like marriage, home-owning and child-rearing --- that have finally been granted to them, something about having kids just seems a bit too hetero. Besides, after years of repression and secret trysts, who wants to finally be able to kiss and dance and grind with a baby staring at you?

"WITH TEETH is a revelation of love, regret and the wisdom that comes with letting go. It will completely upend everything you thought you knew about marriage and parenthood."

Sammie and Monika’s son, Samson, is only a toddler, and already Sammie is starting to crack under the pressure. As the woman who carried her son, Sammie knows that while Monika has stayed hot, she has a mom body now. And while her wife can go off on business trips and attend cocktail hours, she is usually trying to remember what she needed at the grocery store or when their son’s next checkup is. On top of all of the normal stresses of parenthood, Sammie knows that they are under a microscope, particularly because they are raising a boy. Queer couples are always judged differently than their heterosexual peers, but if a boy raised by two women --- with none of the “necessary” male influences --- turns out to be anything less than perfect, Sammie and Monika risk damning an entire generation of queer parents. And even Sammie can’t help but admit that there’s something not quite right with Samson.

On paper, Samson is the perfect child --- quiet, tidy and good at entertaining himself. But Sammie has been noticing moments of rage and an utter reversion to animal behavior in him. When he starts biting his playmates and even his own mother, she starts to wonder what might have happened if she and Monika had a girl instead. (The fact that Samson was once a twin who resorbed his sister in utero draws this question even closer to the surface, throwing Sammie against a whole wall of “what-ifs.”) As Samson grows up and becomes surlier, bigger and stranger, Sammie is forced to ask herself if she will ever really know her son, or Monika for that matter, who is perfectly happy to let Samson continue his bad behavior, citing “boys will be boys” as her parenting mantra. In the fourth grade, when Samson is instructed to create a quarter-scale approximation of himself, their careful family dynamic implodes, with a biting, nearly feral Samson and his gold-painted one-quarter twin at the center of it all.

Sammie has been growing quietly resentful of Monika for years, but her brewing anger combined with her terror and confusion over her son turn her into a different kind of mother. She is by turns smothering, neglectful, paranoid and hateful, and with so many different pressures --- motherhood, queer love, teenage boys --- she finds that she can no longer figure out who is wrong, what they did and how to fix it. When her marriage to Monika falls apart, she realizes that she’ll have to confront her own role not only in their separation but in her son’s bizarre behaviors if she ever wants to feel like Sammie --- the real Sammie, not Samson’s mom or Monika’s wife --- again.

WITH TEETH is a strange, beguiling surprise of a book. With a premise that borders on horror but is full of whimsy and emotion, Arnett’s sophomore release completely rips away any delusions you might have had about books that revolve around mothers, wives and weird kids. Her take on queer relationships is clear-eyed, candid and captivating. Through Sammie’s disillusioned eyes, she describes everything from being the less-hot half of a couple to the childish arguments that happen so easily in a marriage to the unrealistic expectations placed upon queer couples, particularly lesbians. Hardly a chapter goes by in which Sammie does not hear from another mother that she and Monika should have it easy, that arguments must completely dissolve with two women involved. Arnett shows us that this is far from the truth and that these completely unfair ideas can often wreak havoc on otherwise solid couples.

But where Arnett really shines is in her descriptions of motherhood and the unending pain of knowing that you created a person, carried them to term, birthed them and shepherded them through teething, walking, school, first crushes and all that follows --- and still you can never really know them. For Sammie, this realization, especially when Samson misbehaves, is utterly crushing: “It was one thing to imagine that her son had a terrible inner secret life; it was another thing entirely to watch it lash out, with actual teeth, and draw blood from another child.” At the same time, Sammie knows that no one owns her son like she does, is imprinted on him like she is. When his rage and savagery is reflected in her own behaviors, Arnett describes Sammie’s exquisite combination of pride and horror beautifully.

Perfect for readers of NOTHING TO SEE HERE and DETRANSITION, BABY, WITH TEETH is a revelation of love, regret and the wisdom that comes with letting go. It will completely upend everything you thought you knew about marriage and parenthood.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 18, 2021

With Teeth
by Kristen Arnett

  • Publication Date: May 31, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593191528
  • ISBN-13: 9780593191521