Julia Fierro, Cutting Teeth

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

2014, 336 pages, hardback, $25

DON’T LET THE Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls on the cover fool you—Julia Fierro’s debut novelisn’t playing around. Cutting Teeth tells the story of a group of thirty-something Brooklynites as they spend a weekend together at a beach house in Eden, Long Island—with their children in tow. Though the novel may be set in Eden, the weekend getaway is far from paradise.

Told from alternating points of view of members of the playgroup (and one outsider—the nanny), Cutting Teeth features characters who must face a different obstacle over the course of the vacation: Nicole, the hostess, fights to keep her anxiety secret as she’s tested by the playgroup’s antics and her impending fear of the end of the world as prophesied by mommy message board urbanmama.com; Rip—the only stay-at-home-dad in the group—must reconcile his feelings about parenting and gender norms when challenged by his career-focused wife and desire for a second child; Leigh, a former “rich girl” must come to terms with the moral consequences of stealing from the school’s petty cash fund; Tiffany, the group’s “provocateur,” struggles to maintain her perfect façade in front of the other mommies; Allie and Susanna, the group’s lesbian couple, clash over the way to raise their twins as Allie come to terms with her identity as mother. Finally, each character’s internal, personal crises culminate in an external crisis when—as the weekend comes to a close—a child goes missing.

The obvious subject matter ofthe novel is motherhood. However, as each character strives to understand his or her role as a parent, Fierro moves beyond the world of “mommy-dom.” Instead, the question at the core of Cutting Teeth is universal. Despite the mothers’ individual problems, the book’s characters (even Rip) seem to ask the same question: “Am I good enough?”

This question becomes especially relevant to the modern female experience. In an age when women are expected to “have it all” in both their careers and personal lives, the possibility of “having it all” seems more and more elusive. In her novel, Fierro presents a more nuanced view of this conversation’s extremes; she captures something more complicated than either “leaning-in” or “opting-out.”

When asked about what she hopes readers take away from the novel on this subject, Fierro replied:

I feel like we are at the beginning of the discussion of what it means to be a woman in contemporary society. We want to say there are good mommies, bad mommies, corporate mommies, mommies who work, stay at home mommies who make their own honey from the bees they keep in the backyard. It’s difficult for women to find themselves in those extremes. Because every single one of us is a combination of all those different mothers. Women are still trying to figure out what we deserve and who we want to be, and we try to pretend that’s a decision we’re making in a vacuum, but we’re still making it with the patriarchal history in our heads. And that’s why we’re constantly attacking other women, criticizing other women and judging other women.

The women of Cutting Teeth do attack, criticize, and judge each other, which is in fact the novel’s greatest ambition and accomplishment. In delving into the interiority of each of these characters, we see their true selves and their true nature, which may not always be likeable and “good.” When Leigh first takes in Nicole’s parents’ beach house, she recoils:

So why had Nicole invited them? It was the equivalent of (Leigh thought with a shudder) stripping naked, revealing every varicose vein and pucker of cellulite. For heaven’s sake, the bathroom reeked of old people’s urine, and the shower curtain was streaked with mold. If this had been her childhood home, her parents, Leigh would have kept her friends far far away.

In Cutting Teeth, Fierro strips her characters naked, revealing each varicose vein and pucker of cellulite. Some readers may find the characters’ honesty off-putting, but Fierro’s truthful treatment of each character’s consciousness—especially in the story’s darker moments—is where the novel really shines. To write a book filled with unlikable women is a risk, and one the author pulls off.

“Women are still expected to be pleasing and likable and polite, even when they are playing a ‘bad girl’ role, they are still holding back a lot of honestly,” Fierro says. “‘Bad’ mothers are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to unlikable women, but I find comfort in slipping into another person’s mind and seeing that they are just as flawed and complicated and ambivalent as I am. This is why I write and read, to feel less alone.”

Despite their seeming unlikability, Fierro’s characters remain sympathetic, relatable, human, comforting. If what makes you pick up the book are the cover and subject matter, what will keep you reading, and thinking about the novel after you’ve finished, is Fierro’s sharp observations as related by each of her characters.  Cutting Teeth has all the elements of a smart, fun, summer book for women—a literary “beach read” if you will—with the ambition and import of capturing the modern woman’s experience. 

—Anabel Graff