With Teeth

Kristen Arnett

With Teeth
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With Teeth

Kristen Arnett

With Teeth is a wonderfully sticky novel about motherhood, partnership, sex and love. Kristen Arnett lets her characters have the run of the place, and it’s delicious fun to watch them do, say, and think things they’ll regret’ Emma Straub, author of All Adults Here

If she’s being honest, Sammie Lucas is scared of her son. Working from home in the close quarters of their Florida house, she lives with one wary eye peeled on Samson, a sullen, unknowable boy who resists her every attempt to bond with him. Uncertain in her own feelings about motherhood, she tries her best - driving, cleaning, cooking, prodding him to finish projects for school - while growing increasingly resentful of Monika, her confident but absent wife. As Samson grows from feral toddler to surly teenager, Sammie’s life begins to deteriorate into a mess of unruly behaviour, and her struggle to create a picture-perfect queer family unravels. When her son’s hostility finally spills over into physical aggression, Sammie must confront her role in the mess - and the possibility that it will never be clean again.

Blending the warmth and wit of Arnett’s breakout hit, Mostly Dead Things, with a candid take on queer family dynamics, With Teeth is a thought-provoking portrait of the delicate fabric of family - and the many ways it can be torn apart.


‘With Teeth’ is an unusual title, similar in tone to that of Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things. The teeth of this title are a recurring motif throughout, and without revealing spoilers, all I will say is: ouch! The novel focuses on Sammie, her wife Monika and their combative, almost non-verbal son Samson. We meet Sammie and Samson (the sharing of names already suggests a dysfunctional symbiosis) in a playground. Sammie looks away for a moment and a man attempts to abduct Samson. She runs toward them and sees Samson willingly holding hands with the man and giving him a beatific smile – the kind he has never given Sammie. Sammie’s concerns arising from this incident are ignored by Monika, who wants to portray the ‘perfect queer family’. She works long hours and travels frequently, while Sammie is at home, increasingly disillusioned and diminishing in confidence.

As Samson grows from a toddler to a teenager, we follow Sammie’s increasingly uncertain feelings about motherhood. In one scene toward the end of the novel, Sammie realises she is still wearing clothes she bought ten years ago and hasn’t had a haircut in years. Like many other mothers, she has understandably found it difficult to balance a house, a child’s needs and a relationship with her own needs.

Despite the gravity of these issues, Arnett writes her characters with much humour. Sammie is hilarious when drunk, and her obsession with climbing the fence and sitting in her neighbour’s garden each night provides levity. The narrative is also cleverly punctuated by vignettes that show other people’s perceptions of Sammie. These interjections – by Samson’s primary school teacher, a mother who sits with Sammie at their children’s swimming lesson, and Samson’s therapist among others – are a reality check for the reader. I would recommend this novel to everyone; particularly readers who’ve enjoyed the work of Ottessa Moshfegh, Katherine Heiny and Jen Beagin.

Annie Condon works as a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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