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Kristen Arnett's queer family drama 'With Teeth' is unafraid and un-put-down-able

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 5/30/2021 Alicia Lutes

How much of who we are is tethered to those who raise us? Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents? Where does nature end and nurture begin, and what role do we play in the lot of it?

These are the tough questions at the heart of Kristen Arnett’s second novel, "With Teeth" (Riverhead, 304 pp., ★★★ out of four, out Tuesday), an unflinching look at queerness, parental relationships and how we affect one another in the process of figuring it all out.

"With Teeth" tells the story of Sammie and her wife, Monika, as they navigate being queer women parenting their straight son, Samson, in central Florida. A character study focused on stay-at-home Sammie told over the course of several years doesn't have much by way of plot to carry the story forward. In its place is a slow burn of ruminations on what it means to give up your life in service of raising a child, trying to fit into queer circles as parenting takes center stage, the tension of middle age, and how we all succeed or fail at connecting with those we love, as well as ourselves. 

“With Teeth,” by Kristen Arnett. © Riverhead “With Teeth,” by Kristen Arnett.

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Fans of Arnett’s first novel, "Mostly Dead Things," will find similarities between the two texts thanks to the author’s predilection for sussing out the most unseemly parts of being alive and a member of a family. But where the former text deals with that lot grieving a loss, "With Teeth" looks more closely at living in stasis, the small horrors of parenting and how we affect those we love the most when we’re hurting. 


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"With Teeth" is an at-times horrifying read, and almost frustratingly un-put-down-able given how little actually happens. Arnett is a master of tension-building as Sammie bumbles her way through parenting a son she isn’t even sure she likes and who definitely has a few troubling behavioral problems.

But Sammie has her own destructive patterns to contend with, and the novel does not shy away from the ways in which we hurt ourselves and the ones we purport to love. For Sammie, Samson is a mirror, and one she doesn’t like looking at directly all that often.

The story is dotted with outsider perspectives looking in, showing us sides of the characters we wouldn’t otherwise see. And though its ending feels a bit underwhelming and even a bit cliche, Arnett’s voice and style help pull off something that would otherwise leave a lot to be desired. Her lush renderings of the world around Sammie make even Central Florida at its muggiest seem romantic.

Overall, the psychological examinations at the heart of "With Teeth" make for a gripping read. Unabashedly queer, probing and unafraid, "With Teeth" is an exceedingly engaging sophomore outing from Arnett, solidifying her place in the pantheon of contemporary writers taking long, hard looks at difficult and at-times unseemly topics without shying away from humanity’s worst impulses.

Here is a story with a chewy, sinewy bite that will leave you hard-pressed to look away.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kristen Arnett's queer family drama 'With Teeth' is unafraid and un-put-down-able

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