Review: With Teeth

Kristen Arnett's second novel after her debut Mostly Dead Things returns readers to central Florida for a frank, sometimes dark, often funny portrayal of queer parenthood and midlife as experienced by a lesbian mom with a faltering marriage and an unfathomable child. 

Sammie turns her back for a moment, and her four-year-old son and namesake Samson happily walks off with a probable child abductor at a local park. She intervenes promptly, but his readiness to leave her for a stranger stays in her mind for years as she struggles with Samson's apathetic and occasionally cruel behavior. Whether he leaves a creepy doll in her bed, à la The Godfather, as a fourth grader, or gets in trouble at work for spitting in someone's drink as a teenager, she can count on him to have the "same indifferent look he always had" and to remain an enigma. Her charismatic, successful wife, Monika, provides financially but downplays Sammie's concerns about their son, and Sammie quietly resents doing the bulk of the domestic labor while "Monika got to be the dad-mom, the fun one...." As the years pass, Sammie faces the isolation of parenthood, the indignities of aging and the heartache of a failing marriage with her own awkward, often self-destructive, always totally understandable style.

Divided into four parts named after the seasons, Arnett's character-driven narrative focuses on Sammie's point of view, with occasional windows into the perspective of a minor character like Sammie's therapist, Samson's boss and a fellow swim team mom. These glimpses show Sammie as she appears to others, usually in contrast to the mistaken assumptions she projects onto their reactions, and cast a veil of doubt on the reliability of her perception. Readers will cringe in sympathy as Sammie self-soothes using alcohol and other dubious means, often followed by public embarrassment. Arnett walks a fine line between humor and pathos, sensitively conveying Sammie's loss of a social circle, her fear that others will judge a lesbian couple unfit to parent a boy, and her abdication of self for marriage and family. As a peripheral character muses, "that's what you did when you loved someone.... You said yes and pretended to like it." Complicated, fearless and confidently messy, With Teeth should resonate with any reader who has ever felt like a stranger in their own life. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Shelf Talker: This dark, tender second novel from Arnett is a funny but unflinching take on marriage, parenting and midlife from a queer perspective.

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