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Queer Book Review: With Teeth by Kristen Arnett

Updated: Feb 12

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I came across this book browsing around one of my favourite indie bookstores. It was a staff pick and they never steer me wrong; it was also Pride Month and it felt fitting to read a book by a lesbian author about a lesbian couple navigating parenthood.


With Teeth by Kristen Arnett

Captivating in its candor, With Teeth is a no-frills portrait of motherhood and a realistic, if bleak, examination of relationships post-kids. As a mother myself who is trying (and often failing) to perform the balancing act of nurturing my child as well as my relationship with my partner and my own self, there were many times throughout the novel I felt validated and seen. This excerpt especially nails what it often feels like being a mom:


 

She was so tired of feeling like a body split in half. Sometimes feeling like a mother, with the body of a mother doing all the thing a mother was supposed to do, and the rest of the time trying to be a fully realized person: someone who had sex, someone who liked her body and wanted other people to see it, someone who took care of herself.


 

Along with being a memorable snippet for me personally, I think that excerpt captures the overarching theme of the novel: how becoming a mother can splice a woman into two unrecognizable and sometimes even unreconcilable parts.

The novel beings with the main character, Sammie, at a playground with her four-year-old son. She leaves him on a swing for a moment while she goes to put something in the trash, turning around to see a strange man luring her son to his truck.


Sammie’s understandable freak-out about the situation is met with gaslighting reactions from both her son and her partner — her son downplays the gravity of what actually happened, causing her wife to think she was overreacting.

Child abduction is not the focal point or even a theme of this story, but it is an effective way to allow the reader a glimpse into Sammie’s relationship with both her son and her partner.


Somewhat disjointedly, as the near-abduction has little to do with the story at large, the novel ends with a series of newspaper clippings of actual child abductions at the time in the same area, which she collects and sends to her son. My take is that she is still, and will always be, trying to prove herself and her sanity to him.


Another interesting mechanism Arnett uses is ending each chapter with a one-page observation of Sammie by a peripheral character — a clever way to shed light on her from an objective POV. The body of the novel is written in third-person limited, so the best thing about these omniscient accounts is that they directly clash with Sammie’s own perspective of herself.


The whole thing has a bit of a ‘can’t look away from the train wreck’ vibe. Sammie is at best, frustrating, and at worst, intensely weird. But she has a lot on her plate: mothering a sullen and rather difficult child, trying to keep her wife’s wandering eyes on her, all while teetering on the dangerous precipice of alcohol-induced self-destruction.


There are some seriously cringy moments in the book, especially in the many instances of Sammie wildly disrespecting the privacy of others — at one point she becomes obsessed with spying on her neighbour, going as far as to creep across the lawn in the middle of the night to watch the woman through her kitchen window.


In another uncomfortable scene, while Sammie is driving her teenage son and his friends to a swim meet, she cannot wait to open a sext from her new lover. While she’s behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, she opens the explicit photo, which her son sees and comments on in an awkward exchange later.


No, she’s not a likeable character. She’s an alcoholic who does bizarre things and makes questionable decisions. I wanted to like and root for her a lot more than I did; but maybe that’s the point. That underneath the sheen of what we portray to the public eye, we all have our faults and flaws, and that is actually what’s normal.

Sammie is a love letter to the flawed, real humans that lie right under the surface of every mother you know.



 


 

Ashley J.J. White is a Canadian writer. Her work explores literature, social issues, relationships, parenting, personal growth, philosophy, and mindfulness.

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