Reviewed by Laura Dzubay
One of the most biting struggles of raising children in Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth comes in very small, human moments of perceived disrespect. If your son kicks the back of your seat while you’re driving, is it because he doesn’t respect you enough to listen when you tell him to stop, or is he just forgetting because he’s a kid? If he doesn’t come when you call, is he actively choosing not to listen, and to create more work for you by not listening, or did he just not hear?
With Teeth welcomes us—although welcomes may not be the right word—into the life of Sammie Lucas, who is raising her son, Samson, while also attempting to navigate her increasingly strained relationship with her wife, Monika. Samson is distant, unappreciative, and hard to read, and Monika is often absent with work, content to let the bulk of the housework, cooking, and parenting fall on Sammie. And Sammie, the lonely, overworked, captivating figure at the heart of this novel, is an unreliable narrator whose aching longing for connection drives her into increasingly fraught, complex, and even harmful situations over the course of her son’s childhood.
The struggles of parenthood manifest here in an extraordinarily crisp light, with close attention to all of their angles as they pertain to Sammie. This is a story about motherhood, but it’s also about heteronormativity, toxic masculinity, and uneven divisions of domestic labor. It’s about the outrageous expectations placed on mothers—by society at large, and too often by their own partners—and the casual disrespect they encounter in the form of assumptions about what work they’re willing to take on. And it’s about queerness, and the effects of parenthood on queer identity and community.
Sammie spends so much of her time thinking through questions of love and respect when it comes to her son, and one of the feats the book pulls off is showing how often the answers reside somewhere in the middle, or completely outside of the options that were presented. Short passages woven between the chapters offset Sammie’s unreliability with glimpses of what side characters are thinking, often in ways that elucidate what Sammie and Samson are going through. In one especially haunting section, Sammie has what feels like a judgmental encounter with a woman at her childhood church who acts surprised by Sammie’s queerness, but when we get a glimpse into this woman’s perspective later, she feels terrible and hopes Sammie will come back again and “give her another chance.” But how is Sammie to know? So she doesn’t.
Every character in this book longs for connection and care, but With Teeth does an artful job of showing how people’s coping strategies for their own valid hurt can wind up causing added hurt to other people. Sometimes people really are causing harm without thinking or caring about it—but that’s not the answer every single time. Sometimes, what’s really necessary, and really difficult, is our ability to give others the benefit of the doubt—and to give them something that really does look like love, when they ask for it.
But there are no easy answers for this—for love, for trust, for compassion or companionship. It never comes easy, and the gift With Teeth offers us is in how it forces us to abandon that notion completely.
Riverhead Books, June 1, 2021, $27.00 hardcover (304p), ISBN: 9780593191507.
Laura Dzubay is an MFA candidate in fiction at Indiana University. Her work has previously appeared in Electric Literature, Blue Earth Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere, and you can find her on Twitter @lauradzu. In addition to writing, she loves good food, hiking, and haunted places.