“With Teeth,” by Kristen Arnett

Kristen Arnett

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Kristen Arnett’s novel With Teeth (Riverhead Books, 2021) is a literary novel that bites. From the first scenes, it sinks its teeth in and refuses to let go. Yet it is a deeply troubling read. It left me wondering if some women, like the protagonist Sammie, might be born without mothering instincts. Or if some children with mental and emotional issues, like Sammie’s son Sampson, might exceed a mother’s ability to love.

Set in Central Florida, most of the story is told from Sammie’s point of view, with occasional page-long chapters told by other incidental characters who encounter Sammie and her family. These short segments offer refreshing perspective, particularly because Sammie is an unreliable and often unlikable narrator. The plot moves rather slowly because of her tendency toward constant, repetitive introspection about her domestic issues and sex life—or the lack of it—yet the characters themselves were intriguing enough to make the novel a fast read.

Sammie and Monika are a lesbian married couple who decide to have a child, a decision that rips holes in their relationship. Samson is a difficult child, but that alone isn’t the issue. Sammie seems lost in a fog of depression over the loss of career and identity that develops as she becomes the stay-at-home mom while her partner still has a challenging career. In some ways, Sammie’s dilemma is faced by every stay-at-home mom. The loss of power in a relationship when the breadwinner makes all financial decisions. The boredom of being stuck at home while the rest of the world and life are passing you by. But Sammie’s isolation is deeper than a heterosexual mother’s simply because most other mothers she encounters are heterosexual and they form groups with each other. Sammie feels left out of those social interactions. Her parents rejected her because she is queer, so she doesn’t have an extended family for support either. She turns to alcohol to drown her sorrows, and like most alcoholics, only succeeds in making her problems worse. Both Sammie and Monika begin to explore relationships with other women even though they still share a house.

Sammie’s deteriorating relationship with her wife is important in the story, but her relationship with her son assumes an even greater significance, especially since she is obsessed by the knowledge that a girl fetus was absorbed by her son. She fantasizes about that missing daughter and blames her son, perhaps to the point of considering him a murderer. By the time Samson is a toddler, his difficulties bonding with others and controlling his behavior become painfully clear, problems that only intensify as he ages. Several incidents inspired the title. Ten-year-old Samson bites a classmate in the face so severely the other boy needs stitches. While Sammie is horrified and sees the behavior as abnormal, Monika brushes it off. Denial typifies her parenting style. Nonetheless, at the school’s urging, Sammie and Monika take Samson to see a therapist and begin to visit therapists themselves. Soon after the first biting incident, Samson bites Sammie when she refuses to stop to get ice cream. Sammie takes the unusual step of biting Samson back. Now, you might not find that advice in a childcare book, but her response is not entirely wrong. If nothing else, it taught the boy that biting caused pain—and also it was a consequence to his inappropriate behavior. Unfortunately, instead of owning up to what she’d done, Sammie lies to Monika and says Samson bit himself. Lying and pretending everything is all right becomes a standard response in this dysfunctional family.

Samson seems aware that his life is different from other kids his age. He tells a therapist he feels burdened by his name. He would prefer his middle name Thomas, which sounds more normal to him, but for reasons unknown, Sammie won’t give in to his preference. Even though the novel never labels Samson, his lack of social development, inability to connect with others and respond to them, and his tantrums and aggression suggest he falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. But sometimes, I wondered if his biggest problem was that he felt that no one loved him. Sammie doesn’t even wash his sheets or buy him clothes when he outgrows them. She is so detached that she doesn’t realize he still has cartoon character underpants in his drawer when he’s a teen. She doesn’t know that Monika taught Samson to drive. She has been oblivious to her own needs as well. Her clothes are all at least a decade old and haven’t fit for a long time. While the novel also avoids labeling Sammie’s problems, it is clear she suffers from depression. Maybe more than that—I am not a psychiatrist.

Samson’s most positive experiences center around the swim team. He excels in competitive swimming, but Sammie can’t help but notice he doesn’t form friendships with his teammates. He does hold down a job at the bowling alley for a time, but gets in trouble for spitting into a girl’s drink and then later for spitting in her face. Perhaps the best insight we have into Samson comes after this incident when he berates both his moms: “Encourage me? When has anyone ever encouraged me?” That is a cry from the heart. In the course of the family argument that follows, Monika blames Sammie for Samson’s behavior: “You’re the reason he’s like this.” Overhearing this accusation, Samson’s response is unusual for him in its verbosity, honesty, and awareness of others: “Like what? . . . A normal person? Not two freaks pretending to play house?” He recognizes that his mothers have tried to project a lie to the world, an image of a perfect queer family, and by erecting this façade, they have lost sight of who they really are, and in the end, lose each other and their son.

The various therapists the family sees don’t come across as reasonably real people. Surely any competent therapist would offer specific advice on how to deal with a child with such serious issues, but if interventions were offered, the author omits these details, possibly because most of the story is filtered through Sammie, who is unreliable and tends toward narcissism. The novel’s therapists are no more skilled in dealing with Sammie than Samson. The only suggestion the therapist makes to improve Sammie’s life is to move out of the house she shares with Monika. Good suggestion. Living with an ex can’t be healthy. But that would only address a small part of Sammie’s issues. She is, in unscientific terms, a serious mess.

The characters in With Teeth got under my skin and troubled me long after I turned the last page—and isn’t that the sign of good fiction?

Kristen Arnett is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Mostly Dead Things and the award-winning collection Felt in the Jaw. A queer writer based in Florida, she has written for The New York Times, McSweeney’s, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She has been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and has won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction and the Coil Book Award.

Click here to purchase this book:


Leave a Reply