Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Review: Cutting Teeth
hardcover, 336 pages
St. Martin's Press
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Cutting Teeth takes place entirely over a Labor Day weekend in Long Island, where a Brooklyn-based play group gathers parents and preschool age children for a party that turns into a psychodrama. The "mommies" include a novelist with OCD (Nicole), an artist who is the surrogate for her wife's child with a sperm donor (Susanna), a stay-at-home-dad (Rip), a voluptuous seductress with a working-class background (Tiffany), a blue-blood embezzler (Leigh), and a paid Tibetan nanny who is pretty much the most balanced (and nicest) in the bunch (Tenzin).
These are people with problems.
Julia Fierro's debut novel has an eclectic collection of characters who share a couple of characteristics: they are all parents, and they are almost all incredibly privileged. The "mommies" (as the stay-at-home caretakers are constantly called) all have a spouse or partner who earns enough to afford life in Brooklyn, and for one partner or spouse to stay home to care for the children. But the life the characters can afford is not just any life, it is the kind of life that includes play dates, organic foods, elite preschools, and all the accoutrements of power and privilege.
Cutting Teeth introduced me to a foreign world, one where immense amounts of time and effort go into conveying a certain image to others, and immense amounts of time is spent obsessing over and analyzing the most minor social interactions. At first, I admit, I found the characters of Cutting Teeth off-putting and even annoying. While the lives of the mommies focus on their children to an almost unhealthy degree, none of the characters seem to find any joy in their children. And they seem universally oblivious to just how privileged and fortunate they are. The level of self-absorption among the characters, combined with the manipulative social interactions, and the unhealthy power struggles within the marriages made it hard for me to like any of the characters, or to care very much about them.
The only character who seems to have any sense at all was the Tibetan nanny, Tenzin, who has three children and a husband in India, and is seeking asylum.
Now that I have finished Cutting Teeth, I'm certain that Julia Fierro very deliberately showed the least pleasant aspects of her characters at the start, then began to build the reader's sympathy for her all-too-human characters. Everyone has a back story, and Tiffany, in particular, has a really devastating and pitiful one. In fact, although Tiffany's behavior was in some ways the worst of all the characters, I found her the most sympathetic, if not likable, in the end.
Cutting Teeth is a well-constructed ensemble tale of privileged but human parents, trying to do their best in the face of class and money issues, fertility problems, and mental health problems. Leigh, the character who is probably facing the most serious problems of the book, has a son who is possibly "on the spectrum." His behavior makes him a challenge, and the reader can easily sympathize with Leigh's desire to help Chase fit in, and to love a highly challenging child who basically exhausts her every day. Rip is the stay-at-home dad of a boy who wants, more than anything, a princess dress. Not only does Rip have to take a hard look at his own gender-role issues in the novel, he has to face the expectations and judgments of others.
In the end I found Cutting Teeth a worthwhile read, even though I could not by any stretch of my imagination really identify with any of the characters. It was really interesting seeing how the other half lives, and the novel certainly brings home the truth that money doesn't protect anyone from problems or disaster. By the last chapter I understood and even liked most of the characters, and could appreciate the moments of redemption offered in Cutting Teeth.