Cutting Teeth, by Julia Fierro
When my daughter was little, there was a universally acknowledged sentiment among the parents I knew. We referred to summer as the busy season, when the steady routine of the school year fell away and the schedule went overtime. Still, when your kids are small, there’s a lovely innocence to summer—its sprinklers and late evenings, its days at the pool and sand castles. My daughter isn’t little anymore, and as summer arrives, I find yourself missing those days when she was little, sand-covered, sticky with melted popsicle, days when your kids crawl into your lap wrapped in a beach towel. Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, captures that sense of fleeting summer pleasure, as well as the pleasures and the challenges of navigating parenthood. On a Labor Day weekend, five members of a hip Brooklyn playgroup and their families arrange to spend the last days of summer in a beach house on Long Island Sound, and the collage of personalities effectively heightens the novel’s careful arrangement of temporal and physical space.
There is Nicole, mother of almost-four Wyatt, and the weekend’s organizer, who battles obsessive behavior, and harbors secrets—for one, that she’s arranged this weekend at her parents’ beach house without their knowledge. Rip, the group’s lone father, is a stay-at-home dad to four year-old Hank, and hopes for a second child, though his wife Grace, a corporate manager, may not. Leigh, mom to infant daughter Charlotte, three months, also has a son, Chase, four, who suffers from an unnamed brain-based behavioral disorder. She longs to have another child, and in a desperate move, has embezzled cash from her school’s fundraiser to pay for yet another in vitro fertilization. There is Allie, a successful artist and her wife, Susanna, her former student, mothers to four year-old twins Levi and Dash, and with Susanna’s pregnancy, expecting a third child. Finally, Tiffany, and her fiancé, Michael, arrive with Tiffany’s nearly four year-old daughter, Harper (still being breast-fed). Among the group, Tiffany is the outsider, with a past of poverty and hard circumstance, whose strident views on child-rearing and organic food pale alongside her social climbing fervor. The conscience of the group is Tenzin, Leigh’s Tibetan nanny, a woman the group refers to as the “Tibetan Mary Poppins,” for the magically calming effects she has upon her charges.
We grow to know each of these characters through the chapters that rotate among different narrators. Their anxieties, financial woes, their struggles and desires often run in conflict, heightened by the strictures that come with parenting young children. It’s this pressure that drives the novel, and in the course of the weekend, the characters come to see their lives differently.
Among the pleasures of Cutting Teeth are Fierro’s gems of parenting reality. As when Rip, the perennial mommy outsider observes, “The mommies expected the kids to have the control of adults. No one wants to be friends with a nose-picker. Cookies are for good boys only. Why would you want a child to feel shame when you knew adult life was chock-full of it?” Allie, the successful artist, grapples with the changes that have come over Susannah, once the fiery young art student, who seems now settled happily in motherhood.
The lens moves in close on the children, too. On the beach, a little girl in the distance is a “speck of pale skin topped with flame red, like a birthday candle.” There is the brashness of a girl at four, bossing the boys. The shyness of a child who knows he’s different. The turns of cruel behavior and camaraderie. Fierro’s prose is beautifully crafted. Her sentences are assembled with care, yet unfold with clarity and insight, showing us the secret in equal measure to the mundane:
“The day had been filled with warnings, Nicole thought, and it was only midafternoon. A chorus of don’t and watch-out! As the mommies’ and daddies’ exhaustion had surged, the routine parental reprimands had morphed into ominous threats and prophecies.”
The tensions come to a head in a near-disastrous incident, though the novel doesn’t aim to neatly wrap up the questions it raises. The title is based on a quote by Peter Ustinov, “Parents are the bones on which children cut their teeth,” and references a time a parent might grapple with their own self-hood, as their children’s young lives are forming too. From my own experience, this is all too clear. You don’t quite see it at the time, but the day-to-day sameness is its own state of flux. The worries and complications that seem unending, well, they can change in a flash.
Julia Fierro’s forthcoming novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer is due out in 2017. Read an author interview here.